Jesus Wept

Remembering “The Falling Man”

The memories are imbedded so deep within us that we can never escape them.  And yet, the reality of that day is still beyond our comprehension.

the_falling_manThe story of “The Falling Man” took me back to the World Trade Center towers as I tried to imagine what it was like for people to decide to leap out of the Windows on the World restaurant to plunge 106 stories to the ground below.  But it’s beyond me.

I remembered my first visit after 9/11 with a member of my congregation who got out just before the Towers fell, escaped across the river and drove all the way back to Florida.

And I went back to what it was like to attempt to preach on the Sunday after the attack.

No Simple Words 

In our Twitter culture, we like to try to put big ideas into brief phrases; to edit the large story down to a munchable size.  I pulled up the sermon I preached on that Sunday in hopes of pulling out a few tidbits to share with you, but there’s no way I could do it.  If ever in my years of preaching there was a time when I was “given” the word to speak, it was that day.

Most people felt it was God’s word for us that day.  A few people didn’t like it. They walked out the door and never came back again.  But rereading it fifteen years, there’s not a word I would change. It still challenges me to live more deeply into the way of Christ.

So, it’s attached below.  If you take time I read it, I pray that it will speak the Word to you again.

Grace and peace,

Jim

15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2001)

JESUS WEPT!

Text: Luke 19:41-44, John 11:28-37, Romans 8:31-39

We’ve been listening this fall for Jesus’ answers some of the very real questions of our lives. We interrupt that series today, the way all of our lives were so ruthlessly interrupted on Tuesday morning, to listen for what Jesus might say to us in the vacant silence of that place where the World Trade Center used to stand, in the smoldering shadow of the Pentagon, in a hole in the fields of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Our ears have been filled with the non-stop words of reporters, politicians, commentators, historians and generals, but we gather here to listen for a different word:

a word of healing for the gapping wound in all of our broken hearts,
a word of hope in the chaos of this hate-filled world,
a word of wisdom for us to be faithful to the gospel,
and a word of courage that we not become the mirror image of the evil we deplore.

We’ve gathered here to listen for a word from Jesus. And if we listen with our hearts, here’s the first thing we will hear. It’s recorded in John 11:35. In the old King James Version, it is the shortest verse in the Bible. Like me, I’ll be some of you memorized it as children so that we’d have a verse to quote in Sunday School, utterly incapable of understanding what it would mean to repeat it at a time like this. John simply says, “Jesus wept.”

If we listen today, we will hear Jesus weeping over the awesome reality of human suffering and death.

The truth is that Jesus had good reason to weep. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were the best friends Jesus had. But Lazarus had died. By the time Jesus got to Bethany, his friend had been in the tomb for four days; just the way yesterday marked the fourth day since the bodies of God-only-knows how many people were entombed in the rubble in New York and Washington.

When Jesus got to Bethany, Mary and Martha met him on the road. I picture them falling into his arms, pounding on this chest. Warren Pattison told me this morning that his New Testament professor said that to really get the feeling of the text, you need to hear them saying, “Jesus, where the hell have you been!” That’s not what the text says, but that’s how it feels when they cry, “Jesus, if you had been here our brother would not have died.” And we’ve seen those grief-stricken sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, companions and friends lining the streets of Manhattan, holding up a picture of someone they loved as much as life itself. John records Jesus response. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” (11:33)

We’re not talking about a polite, little lump in the throat here. This is not a little dabbing of the cheek with a hankie. The Greek verb is a strong, visceral word that contains some of the anger that all of us feel in the face of death. It’s a surge of grief and pain that explodes somewhere in the basement of our soul and vibrates through the whole framework of our being.

And who among us has not known that kind of emotion this week? Some of us remember Pearl Harbor. Many of us remember the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Most of us remember the explosion of the Challenger. All of us remember Oklahoma City. But none of us has faced anything like this. The only place I know to begin is with that kind of grief that shakes our souls.

Jesus wept. When John says that Jesus — the one whom he identified as the Son of God, the one who revealed God’s likeness in human form – wept, he is saying that the infinite, Almighty God has taken our suffering, our pain and our grief into himself. I am not big enough to take in this kind of suffering, but God is. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said that we do not have a high priest that cannot be touched by the feelings of our infirmities. In Jesus, the infinite, Almighty God knows our sorrow and shares our tears.

With you, I’ve tried to take it in. I’ve tried to imagine what it is like to walk through lower Manhattan. But I cannot comprehend it. My mind is not big enough to take it in. But God is. God is big enough to take in the whole weight of our human suffering and pain, and by the power of the resurrection, our suffering, sorrow, and grief can be redeemed.

It’s here, standing beside the tomb of his best friend, that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25) He shouted into the darkness of the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out! Looking a lot like Boris Karloff, still wrapped, John says, in his grave clothes. For this one, brief, shining moment, the power of life in Jesus Christ triumphed over the power of death. Jesus defeated death, not with more death, but with more life. Jesus overcame evil, not with an equal power of evil, but with the overwhelming power of good.

The power of life in the risen Christ can turn our grief into laugher, our sorrow into dancing, our death into new life. But first, there were the tears. First, Jesus wept. The first word we hear from Jesus’ tears is a word of comfort in our sorrow, a word of hope for new life in the face of death.

There is one other place where the gospel writers say that Jesus wept. It comes right on the heels of the raising of Lazarus. It was the day of that palm-waving procession into the city of Jerusalem. The people shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But Jesus knew that the road he was following would lead inexorably to a cross. When they came down the Mount of Olives, he could see the Holy City, spread out before him in the clear, morning light, the dome of the Temple gleaming in the sun. It was the symbol of everything the Hebrew people worshipped, honored, loved and trusted. It was enough to take your breath away. It was like looking across the Hudson River to the skyline of New York. It was like standing on the Virginia hillside and looking across the Potomac to Washington. And Luke records:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

The first time Jesus wept his tears were pastoral. They were tears of compassion in our suffering and pain. This time his tears are prophetic. They are tears of sadness over what might have been. Jesus wept over a city that did not know the things that make for peace.

It’s clear that the people who attacked our cities on Tuesday were fanatics; so fanatical that they were willing to die for their destructive ideology.   It’s pretty clear that they were radical fundamentalists. Like all radical fundamentalists — whether they are Americans who abuse the name of Christianity or Muslims who abuse the name of Islam — the one thing they have in common is their absolute conviction that theirs is the only truth and that it must be defended at all costs. They were fanatics and they were radical fundamentalists, but they were not stupid.

They knew what they were doing. They hit us where they knew it would hurt the most. They hit us in the two cities that symbolize our national life and values more dramatically than any others. They hit us in what my friend and fellow pastor, Randy Ashcraft, called “the twin towers of our cultural idolatry.” They hit us in the symbols of the two things in which this culture actually places its trust: our economic power and our military might. You want to hurt Americans? Attack our trust in materialism and militarism. And so we weep over the desecration of the cities we love.

And Jesus weeps with us, just the way he wept over Jerusalem. Standing in the long line of the Biblical prophets:

Jesus weeps over a city where innocent people are crushed in the rubble of senseless destruction.

Jesus weeps over a world in which a historically-marginalized minority resorts to fanatical terrorism to vent their hostility and frustration.

Jesus weeps over any city or nation that places its ultimate trust in wealth or power.

Jesus weeps over a world in which nations are quicker to marshal their resources for war than they are to marshal their resources for peace.

Jesus weeps over towns and cities where innocent people are abused, intimidated or insulted simply because they worship in a mosque or carry Arabic-sounding name.

Jesus weeps over faithful people who call themselves Christians but are tempted to lay aside the Sermon on the Mount when they pick up their flag.

I haven’t the faintest idea what the most appropriate military or political response to this crisis should be. I do not claim to understand all of the history that has brought us to this point. I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it will mean for the international community to deal with the sinister evil of terrorism. But I do know this.

I know that the greatest risk for Christian people in this kind of crisis is that we will be fail to be Christ-like. The great risk for followers of Jesus is

that we will too easily trade the rule of the Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus for the rule of violence that that has been inflicted up on us;

that we will abandon Jesus’ call to peace in the apparent necessity of war;

that we will silence the good news of God’s love for the whole creation in the thunderous call for vengeance;

that we will surrender the highest ideals of our nation’s heritage to the same forces of bigotry and hatred that exploded among us on Tuesday morning;

that we will allow the same forces of evil, hostility and violence that shattered our buildings to penetrate our souls.

Whatever we do, whatever our nation’s leaders call us to endure, let us at least remember who we are as follower of Jesus Christ. Let us pray that our lives, our minds, our hearts, will continue to be challenged, shaped and formed by his Spirit. And may our hearts be broken by the things that broke the heart of Jesus, the things that caused him to weep for a city that did not know the things that make for peace.

One more word from Jesus as he weeps beside Lazarus tomb. John records that when the people standing around the tomb saw his tears, they all said, “See how he loved him!”

The tears of Jesus are the human expression of the infinite love of the Almighty God for his bruised and broken creation. They are the visible sign of the love of God that loved this whole, sin-cracked creation so much that he gave his only Son, that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.

Jesus said there was no greater love than this, that a person would give his life for a friend. And we’ve seen that love made real this week.

We saw it in the firefighters who went up the stairs into the inferno while those who escaped were coming down.

We saw it in the heroism of those who caused that USAir jet to crash into the fields of Pennsylvania rather than destroy more lives in the capitol.

We saw it in the fire department chaplain who lost his life while giving last rites to others.

We’ve seen it in the doctors and nurses who exhausted their bodies trying to put other bodies back together.

We see it in the hands of construction workers who have labored without end to work their way through the rubble.

We see it in the ordinary people who wait five and six hours to give blood.

We’ve seen it in the prayers of faithful people who have gathered in churches, and mosques, and temples across this nation and around the world to be united in their faith in God.

Like the tears of Jesus, each of them is a finite, human expression of the infinite love of God. And each of them calls us to a new and deeper commitment of our lives to be the agents of that love in the world around us, to surrender our lives more fully to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

There will be many more words spoken. We will all attempt to put language around this incomprehensible tragedy and attempt to make sense of this difficult and dangerous time. But through it all, may we listen for the word that Jesus speaks to us through his tears, and may we be bound together in that love of God that will never let us go.

 

 

Where Were You When…

Where Were You When…

Everyone who experienced it can tell you exactly where they were when the World Trade Center fell. My friend, Stephen Bauman, described the way people crowded into Christ Church, NYC, after the attacks. (You can watch it here.)

It reminded me of the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination. In both cases, churches were packed and preachers faced the daunting challenge of putting words around an event that left us speechless.

A Word to Remember  

I don’t remember what our pastor said back then, but I recently rediscovered the sermon The Rev. Dr. Harold Buell preached at Hyde Park Church in Tampa on the Sunday after the assassination.

He began by reflecting on the President’s visit to Tampa just four days earlier.  (You can see the 50th anniversary documentary of the visit here.) He called the assassination “a symbol of the moral deterioration of American life.” He said:

“We have placed our trust in militarism, in the philosophy that might makes right; and then we wonder that an assassin thinks he can solve a problem with the firing of a gun. We are fed violence and brutality on television all day…and then we wonder that an assassin follows the techniques of television.”

Sound familiar? And that was in the supposedly “great” days of the early ’60’s!

He went on to say that the assassination was “the inevitable result of the work of hate mongers…in American life.”

“These extremists would pit American against American; white American against black American, and black American against white American; Roman Catholic against Protestant, Protestant against Roman Catholic, and Catholics and Protestants against the Jews. These extremists have taught hatred of the United Nations, of the Supreme Court and other American institutions; they have sown distrust of leaders in both Church and State. The murder in Dallas reflects the work of those who have spread hatred.”

Sound familiar? Add Muslims to the list and he could speak those words today.  Why is it that the loudest voices in our country  assume that we cannot disagree with another person’s convictions without demonizing them? Whatever happened to mutual respect, basic decency and “the common good” in our political life?

A Word of Hope

Having named the painful reality of the time, Dr. Buell offered a word of hope.

“John F. Kennedy will not have died in vain if his murder calls us back from our mad pursuit of money, pleasure, fame and power, to the things that made American great…You can kill a man with a bullet, but you cannot kill the truth the man stands for.”

He told the congregation that the death of the President “calls us to a rededication to righteousness in public and private life” and he affirmed that “we still have one to whom we can cling; we have the stability that trust in an Omnipotent God can give.”

Reading his sermon makes me want to take a look at the sermon I preached on the Sunday after 9/11.  I’ll share some of that with you in my next blog.

When Will We Learn?

Looking back as a child of the ’60’s, I can hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with its haunting question, “When will they ever learn?” Jesus still weeps over our violence-addicted, power-intoxicated, hate-filled world saying, “If only you knew the things that lead to peace.” (Luke 19:42)

It’s not enough to remember where we were when JFK was shot or when the towers fell.  We must also learn the deepest lessons they have to teach us about who we are and what we are called to become.

May it be so.

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  There’s still room for you to join us on the Celebration Cruise in January.  I’m looking forward to sharing the leadership with Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms.

Where Does God Dwell?

The Sacrament of Summer Days

220px-2009-0619-BayView-CottagesWe spent the past week at  Bay View, Michigan.  It’s a summer community on Lake Michigan that started as a Methodist camp meeting in 1875.  Later it joined the Chautauqua movement, providing a summer program of religious, cultural and educational activities that continues to this day.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because of its perfectly-preserved Victorian “cottages.”  (Don’t let that word fool you; most of them are actually large houses.)

I had the privilege of preaching and lecturing during the last week of their 141st season. The cool breezes gave hints of autumn which is definitely on the way…up north, at least.  Many  residents have left.  Some of the cottages were already closed for the winter ahead.  By the end of October the community will be entirely shut down until next spring.

In the final lecture, I shared a beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson which captures the feeling of “Indian Summer,” those last fleeting days of warmth before the coming of autumn.

These are the days when Birds come back
A very few—a Bird or two
To take a backward look

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June
A blue and gold mistake

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf

Oh Sacrament of summer days
Oh Last Communion in the Haze
Permit a child to join

Thy sacred emblems to partake
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Where Does God Dwell

Sunday’s sermon included Psalm 84.  It opens with these beautiful words:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord of heavenly forces!
My very being longs, even yearns,
for the Lord’s courtyards…
Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
the swallow has found herself a nest
where she can lay her young beside your altars.

I said that it’s hard to imagine a lovelier dwelling place than Bay View. Who wouldn’t want to be like a sparrow and find a home in such a lovely place away from the ugly, noisy, messy, conflicted, painful world out there? Who wouldn’t like to hide away in the idyllic memory of a mythical past? Who wouldn’t wish that the rest of the world might be just as lovely a dwelling place as this historic community?  Who might not wish that we could make the world like this again?

But the writer goes on:

Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
pilgrimage is in their hearts.
As they pass through the Baca Valley,
they make it a spring of water…
They go from strength to strength,
until they see the supreme God in Zion.

There’s scholarly debate about whether the “Baca Valley” was a literal place, some dry, barren desert. Or whether it is a symbolic place. Some translations call it “the Valley of Tears.” Either way, most of us have been there. We know what it’s like to be in a dry, barren place. We know how it feels to walk through the Valley of Tears.

But people of biblical faith always have “pilgrimage in their hearts.” They carry God’s “dwelling place” with them.  As they walk through the dry, barren, pain-soaked valley of tears, they transform it into a place of springs. Assured of God’s presence, they go from strength to strength until they see the fulfillment of their hope in Zion.

I suggested that as these modern Methodists come to the end of their summer in a lovely place and pack up to go back into the sometimes ugly, messy, conflicted places from which they came, they get to choose.

Is God’s dwelling place at Bay View?
Or does God dwell in the place where we live and work the rest of the year?
Does God only dwell in an idyllic past?
Or does God’s presence give strength for the present and hope for the future?

Even we Floridians, for whom autumn is something we read about in poetry, need the assurance that God’s dwelling place is wherever we are.

May we find the dwelling place of God in our Baca Valley.
May we find God’s strength in our Valley of Tears.
May we know the presence of God in the sometimes ugly, messy, confusing conflicted places where spend the winter of our lives.
And may we be people of faith who travel with pilgrimage in our hearts, so that as we walk through the dry, barren places of this world, we will make it a spring of living water that brings life to others.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

What Donald and I Have in Common


“You Have Sacrificed Nothing” 

I finally found one thing that Donald Trump and I have in common.

In the eloquent words of Khizr Khan, Donald Trump and I “have sacrificed nothing” for this country.  (I’m sorry, Donald, but working hard to make lots of money is not generally considered to be a sacrifice.) The Khans earned the right to point this out on behalf of all the parents who have buried a child in the service of our nation.
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Mr. Trump and I both had deferments during the Viet Nam draft.  In 1968, I received a 4-D deferment because I was going to seminary to prepare for ministry, for which I’m both unashamed and grateful.  In addition to four college deferments, Trump got another one because he had bone spurs in his heels.

Neither of us made the sacrifices that some of our peers made by being drafted or enlisting to go to Viet Nam.

Nor did I make the sacrifice of others in my generation who protested against the war in Viet Nam.

Bob Lyon was the first Christian pacifist I’d ever met.  He was my New Testament Greek professor in seminary.  I’ve forgotten most of what he taught me about Greek, but I’ve never forgotten what he taught me about taking Jesus seriously in ways that have challenged and guided me ever since.  But I’ve never made any sacrifice for attempting to follow Jesus in the way of non-violence (except for the loss of some friends along the way).

Mr. and Mrs. Kahn reminded me of the unearned gifts enshrined in our Constitution that Donald Trump and I inherited from the generations who came before us. They are a legacy I want to pass on to my grandchildren and to the immigrants Emma Lazarus  described as “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Donald Trump and I have made no sacrifice for this nation.  The difference is that I  humbly acknowledge that fact and Trump either cannot or will not.

Trump’s behavior has demonstrated that he is apparently incapable of empathy for the pain of others, humility in the face of suffering, or the slightest bit of remorse for his self-aggrandizing arrogance. It continues to confirm his declaration that he never apologizes and never asks for forgiveness. 

Changing My Heart 

None of this comes as a surprise.  The surprise has been the way my heart has begun to change.

Diana Butler Bass is a leading scholar and writer on American Christianity.  Her recent reflection on Donald Trump challenged me, as a follower of Christ, to move from disgust through pity toward compassion.

My heart, my baptism vows, my sense of ethics compel me to respect the dignity of all human beings and to try, try, try to navigate my words regarding others with kindness…

And this is the best I can do: Donald Trump is a broken, wounded, person who seems painfully unaware of his own humanity, unfit for the office for which he is running, a violator of the American community, and one who does not know what truth is…The kindest thing we can do is tell Mr Trump as loudly and consistently as we can that we — the good people of the United States — reject him as a leader and that he needs to go home and examine his heart and rediscover his own soul.

God loves you, Mr Trump. And the hope and dream of that God is that when we find ourselves wrapped in the presence of ultimate love & mercy, that we treat others with equal grace and tenderness. This is the path to human maturity. Your money, your television show, your fame, and your quest for power mean nothing if you lack love.

I do not fear you. I pray for you. (https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass)  

The deepest thing Donald Trump and I have in common our common need of undeserved forgiveness and unearned grace.

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!

When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
    I was groaning all day long—
    every day, every night!—
because your hand was heavy upon me.

So I admitted my sin to you;
    I didn’t conceal my guilt.
    “I’ll confess my sins to the Lord, ” is what I said.
    Then you removed the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Although we have sacrificed nothing, the greatest sacrifice of all has been given for us.

This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. (I John 4:9-11) 

For a multitude of reasons, I can never vote for Donald, but I can pray him.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kind of Leader We Need

What Kind of Leader Do We Really Need?

It goes without saying — though I will say it anyway! — that we are facing deep divisions in both our nation and (speaking as a United Methodist) in our church.  What kind of leaders do we need to show us the way forward?

I had never heard of William White, but he’s become a model for me of the kind of leaders we desperately need at this moment in history.

220px-William_White-Bishop_Episcopal_Church_USA-1795 (1)Born in Philadelphia in 1747, White was a priest in the Church of England. In spite of his ordination vow of loyalty to the King, he supported the Revolution and served as chaplain to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789.  He then served for ten years as the Chaplain of the Senate. He led in writing the constitution for the Episcopal Church in America and became its first Presiding Bishop.  One writer points to the way his “gifts of statesmanship and reconciling moderation” led the church through times of revolutionary upheaval and change.

I was drawn to White because of the collect in his memory that is included in the Episcopal calendar of daily prayers on July 17.

O Lord, in a time of turmoil and confusion you raised up your servant William White, and endowed him with wisdom, patience, and a reconciling temper, that he might lead your Church into ways of stability and peace; Hear our prayer, and give us wise and faithful leaders, that through their ministry your people may be blessed and your will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Don’t miss those words: wisdom…patience…a reconciling temper…wise and faithful leaders. They became my persistent prayer for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference as it elected five new bishops for the United Methodist Church. They are my prayer as our Council of Bishops attempts to lead our denomination through this critically important time in our history. They are also my prayer as we continue to make our way through the noisy conflict of this Presidential election season.

A Time of Turmoil and Confusion

Like William White, we live in “a time of turmoil and confusion” in our church, nation and world. What kind of leaders do we really need to lead us through these revolutionary times “into ways of stability and peace”?

There’s always the temptation to go for the “strongman” who feeds on our fears and frustrations and promises to solve every problem by the sheer force of his personality and power.  We’re always tempted to deepen the polarization that separates us, to listen only to those who reinforce our preconceived assumptions, to demonize those who disagree with our chosen positions and to make every issue an “all or nothing” decision without being willing to search for the “common good.”

William White represented a very different kind of leadership.  His leadership was rooted in the wisdom that comes from broad learning; patience that looks at each decision in light of the long-term implications, not immediate gain; and faith that grows out of lifelong disciplines of biblical reflection and spiritual growth.  All of which resulted in a “reconciling temper” that brought people together who would otherwise have been driven apart.

For United Methodist readers, I commend James Howell’s recent blog Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together as an example of that kind of leadership.

May God give us leaders in every area of our lives who lead with wisdom, patience and a reconciling temper, that together we might find ways to stability and peace.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Spacious Skies

Fireworks Under Cloudy Skies

The skies weren’t “spacious” over Washington last night.

A text from a friend who was watching the fireworks from a condo looking out over the Mall said, “The balcony was wet and the clouds were low but the show this year was hauntingly beautiful.”

PBS later confirmed that along with live shots of the cloud-covered Mall, they dubbed in recorded clips of crystal clear nights in the past.

It could be a metaphor for the way “the patriots’ dream” we celebrated yesterday sometimes seems like a beautiful vision that haunts our memories and hopes under the cloudy skies of our current political divisions. We can hope.

(Musical note: I love “The 1812 Overture” with its cannons, choirs and chimes! I also wonder if folks realize that we’ve borrowed it from Tchaikovsky, who wrote it to commemorate Russia’s defeat Napoleon’s invasion of his homeland. Perhaps our adaptation points to deep, common ties between often competing nations.)

For Spacious Skies

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The skies were spacious over Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when I was there as the teacher for the Dakotas’ Annual Conference a few weeks ago. The sun was peeking over the horizon when I made my way onto the running/biking/walking trail that winds its way along the outskirts of the city.

As a rare visitor to the Great Plains, I was in awe of the “spacious skies and amber waves of grain” that stretched out as far as I could see to the north and west of the city. A cool, early-morning breeze contradicted the blistering heat of coming day.

Making my way along the trail, I remembered the Psalmist’s words: “In tight circumstances I cried to the Lord; the Lord answered me with wide open spaces.” (Psalm 118:5 CEB)

That phrase — “wide open spaces” – also appears in 2 Samuel 22:20Psalm 18:19, Psalm 31:8, and Psalm 119:45.

Old Testament scholar and friend, Dan Johnson, confirmed that the Hebrew word, merhab means “vast expanse” or “broad domain.”  It refers to “Yahweh’s celestial abode,” in other words, “spacious skies.” It can also mean “salvation.”

The Spacious Skies of Salvation

Walking under spacious skies that morning, I realized again that being “saved” means that by God’s grace I am being released from the suffocating smallness of life turned in on itself (we call it “sin”) to live in the spacious greatness of God’s boundless life and love.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. (Romans 8:4-6 CEB)

I’m being set free from the “tight circumstances” of a rigid legalism that needs to squeeze everyone else into my narrow assumptions so that I can experience expansive receptivity to others.

I am being healed of the sin of selfishness to live into what Thomas Merton called “the infinite unselfishness of God.”

I am being saved from a life motivated by self-serving so that I can experience the self-giving life of Jesus Christ.

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. (Romans 8:12)

In God’s love, I’m living toward a life “undimmed by human tears.”

In all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:37-39)

Thanks be to God for the spacious skies of saving grace, unending love and relentless hope.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Words Won’t Work

Sometimes Words Don’t Work

A preacher’s job often involves trying to put words around experiences or ideas that are too big, too deep, too strong or too painful for words to describe.  Try as we must, there are times in all of our lives when human language cannot contain what we feel; times when words don’t work.

By God’s providence, the Florida Annual Conference  met in Orlando last week, the first time in living memory that we met there.  Still reeling from the attack at the Pulse nightclub, we prayed, sang, lit candles and reached out to support our pastors who serve the Orlando community, particularly those who have a history of welcome and support for LGBT men and women.  We affirmed a powerful statement from our Bishop and Cabinet.  First UMC of Orlando hosted an amazing Interfaith Prayer Service and St. Luke’s UMC (the church we birthed 37 years ago) became a center of hope and healing for folks in the Disney-Universal community.

And yet…words simply won’t work to carry the full weight of this tragedy and what it represents in our community and nation. The tragedy is only compounded by the inability of the Senate to approve reasonable gun control legislation that is support by 85-90% of the American people.

Groaning Prayer 

At times like these, I’m grateful for Paul’s promise that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  (Romans 8:26 NRSV)  J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase says “agonising longings which never find words.”

Perhaps providentially, one of the devotional guides I use in my personal prayer life quoted John Bunyan last week: “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”

I think the writer of the 77th Psalm might have been feeling that same loss for words.

I cry out loud to God—
    out loud to God so that he can hear me!
During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.
    At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;
        my whole being refuses to be comforted.
I remember God and I moan.
    I complain, and my spirit grows tired.  (Psalm 77:1-3)

Relentless Hope 

But Paul doesn’t leave us speechless. The word that works when all other words fail is hope. 

We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.  (Romans 8:24-25)

Again, Bunyan wrote:  “Hope has a thick skin, and will endure many a blow.”

When CBS News asked my friend Tom McCloskey, the Lead Pastor at First UMC, Orlando, how he keeps believing that things will get better, Tom said, “My faith says that one day all will be equal.”

That’s hope with a thick skin. It’s hope that is grounded in the assurance that one day God’s kingdom will indeed come and God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For the psalmist, that hope was rooted in remembering God’s work in the past.

But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;
    yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.
I will meditate on all your works;
    I will ponder your deeds.
God, your way is holiness!
    Who is as great a god as you, God?
You are the God who works wonders;
    you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. (Psalm 77:11-14)

When other words won’t work, the word that works is hope.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

Please Don’t Call It “Senseless”

Was It Really “Senseless”?

Of all the words pundits are using to try to make sense of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the one that makes no sense to me is “senseless.”

If by “senseless” you mean “unconscious” as in “I was knocked senseless,” you may have a point. The sheer magnitude of the devastation, the reality of the blood and gore, the immensity of the pain, the depth of the sorrow can overwhelm our senses and leave us stunned, nearly incapable of any response other than tears.  Our assurance is that the Spirit prays within us with “agonizing longings which never find words.”  (Romans 8:26)

But if by “senseless” you mean “done for no reason, nonsensical, lacking sense or meaning,” I beg to differ. In its own diabolical way, this horrendous event makes perfect sense.  

The Recipe for Death 

We may not know everything, but know enough to name the primary ingredients that produce this deadly stew.  

  • Begin with a violent male (there has only been one woman involved in our recent history of mass killings) who, for whatever complex concoction of reasons, has a history of anger, resentment, spouse abuse, racism and hostility to gay men.
  • Add a dash of an apparent inner conflict with his own same-sex attraction.
  • Measure a spoonful of ISIS radicalism that turns home grown terrorists into martyrs.
  • Stir in a generous helping of the easy availability ammunition and guns.
  • Mix it together in an emotional pressure cooker flavored with virulent fear-mongering and boiling over with political rhetoric that gives voice to the worst prejudices, hatreds and fears that ferment in the basement of our culture.
  • Bring it to a boil with the assurance that the gun-lobby-owned cooks in the Congressional kitchen will do nothing to turn down the heat.
  • Serve it up in a place where it can do horrendous damage.
  • Call for prayers and moments of silence to honor the dead.
  • Prepare for it to happen again.

It just makes sense.

The Consistent Ingredient 

One thing that really is “senseless” — meaning “without sense or reason” — is why we do not deal with the one ingredient all of these mass shootings have in common, namely, some version of an “assault” rifle. (I realize that term is used loosely and that AR does not stand for “assault rifle,” but the AR-15 has been the weapon of choice in 13 of our recent mass shootings.)

It’s also senseless is that while 90% of the American people (87% of the Republicans) support background checks for gun purchases, every effort to implement them has been defeated in Congress.  But even that makes sense when you “follow the money.”

Let’s be clear: No one (including Hillary Clinton) intends to “abolish the second amendment,” regardless of how many times Trump says it.  But if we can reduce the number of deaths in car accidents by requiring seat belts and if we can reduce the deaths by lung cancer by banning smoking in public places, then why can’t we save at least a few lives with reasonable gun control?  (President Obama spoke eloquently to this in an NPR Town Hall.)

It just makes sense.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise of the “Methodist Middle”

Surprised in Portland 

According to the New Testament book of Acts, surprising the Church is the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time.

When the leaders of the early Church thought they had figured everything out or when they were at loggerheads and didn’t know where to turn, the Spirit would suddenly surprise them with a new way forward that they never expected.

My consistent prayer for our General Conference has been that the Spirit would once again surprise the Church by opening a new or unexpected way through the conflicting convictions about same-sex relations that have divided our denomination for four decades.  I described my hope for that surprise in an interview with  MinistryMatters. 

The Methodist Middle

The irony is that Methodists have historically been people of the via media, the “middle way.”  Not a mushy middle, but what Bishop Scott Jones calls “the extreme center.”  It’s a clearly defined core of faith that allows space around the circumference for a variety of convictions as to how the faith is lived out.

In Portland, I experienced the Holy Spirit surprising the church in what one friend described as “the rise of the Methodist middle.” Magrey deVega described it as the parents in the front seat telling the squabbling children in the back seat to calm down. My experience at General Conference is consistent with Adam Hamilton’s description of  “A Hopeful Way Forward”.

I was surprised…

  • When the General Conference voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead us in finding a way to unity through our division;
  • When the Bishops offered a wise option for a Commission that would not simply kick the can down the road, but would offer a specific plan for a way through our division into a new way of being together;
  • When I observed that the current and successive Presidents of the Council of Bishops are very wise people with exceptional gifts for leading with a non-anxious, moderating presence;
  • When the GC finally adopted the Bishop’s proposal and held to it in spite of attempts by the folks on the extreme ends of the continuum to scuttle it.

My hope and prayer is that the Spirit will continue to surprise us by drawing together a Commission that will clearly define the center of our life together that will include grace-filled ways for those who find that center to be either too conservative or too progressive to find their way into other ways of ministry.

As I wrote this I remembered an 18th Century Anglican hymn says:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

I was surprised when I found it set to a new tune here, which only demonstrates that the Spirit still has surprises for all of us!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portland, Poet & Pentecost

On the Oregon Trail 

I fly to Portland on Monday to look in on the UMC General Conference.  Having been a delegate to these quadrennial events every time since 1980, I’ve enjoyed looking in online this time without doing all the homework or enduring the sometimes endless debates over details of parliamentary procedure.  It will be good to visit with friends from around the world and to see how the Spirit is moving among “the people called Methodist.”

General Conference is an utterly-unique, globally-diverse, spiritually-uplifting, legislatively-tedious, linguistically-challenging, organizationally-dysfunctional and physically-exhausting experience in denominational life that could fit Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as being the worst form of government except for everything else. With all of its strengths and weaknesses, it’s a living body that represents who we are as a global church family.  Tom Berlin offered an accurate description of it in his blog.

The Poet of Pentecost 

Providentially, this Sunday mid-way through the Conference is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended like flames of fire on the first disciples and the Church was born (Acts 2:1-21).  It’s worth hoping that just as people from all around the world were gathered in Jerusalem that day, that the global family gathered in Portland will once again experience the fire of the Spirit energizing us to passionately and powerfully fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Pentecost story reminded me of these lines from T.S. Eliot.  They are worth reading several times.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

 Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Both in the church and in the world, these are critical days to be reminded that we will be “consumed by either fire or fire.”

I take that to mean that we get to choose the fires of selfishness, anger, hostility, division, meanness, envy and greed, or the fire of the Holy Spirit which the New Testament defines as “love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:16-25) Our only hope lies in the choice “to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

May God’s people everywhere experience a fiery Pentecost.

Grace and peace,

Jim