Behavior or Belief?

Behavior or Belief?

So, which is more important?  What we believe?  Or how we behave?

It’s a lot like breathing.  Which is more important? Exhaling or inhaling?  As a person who lives with asthma, I can tell you that it all depends on which one you did last!

Belief and behavior both matter.  What we believe shapes how we behave and how we behave demonstrates what we believe.  For a healthy life, they need to be in sync with each other.  Even our bodies rebel when what we say we believe and how we behave are not consistent. They both matter.

And yet…

My Problem with Jesus 

Over the past few weeks, the lectionary gospel readings have focused on Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ words we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28).  Most people who say they believe in Christ would agree that these passages are the essential core of what Jesus taught.

The problem is that Jesus has almost nothing to say about what we believe. He focuses entirely on the peculiar way he expects his followers to behave. It’s the same when you turn to Jesus’ parables.  Most of them are not about what we affirm as the content of our faith, but what we do and how we live.  His parables of the final judgement are painfully clear that what will matter is not what we say we have believed, but the way we have behaved.  (Matthew 25:1-46)

John’s gospel is the only gospel that puts a major emphasis on belief, but even it concludes with Jesus saying, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35).  Paul’s epistles are the bedrock of what Christians believe, but every letter points to the way what we believe shapes the way we behave.

That’s not to say that belief is unimportant.  If it were, I wasted a lot of time and energy across the past four decades attempting to help folks get clear about what they believe and why they believe it. What is unimportant is belief that doesn’t transform our behavior.  The goal of Christian discipleship is not making sure that we get everything right in our heads, but that our hearts and lives are being shaped into the likeness of Jesus.

The Problem for Us 

The problem for “so-called” Christians is that the world watches how we behave more closely that it listens to what we believe.  Particularly the so-called “Gen-Xers” and “Millennials” can smell a hypocrite a mile away.

They may not understand all the complexities of Christian theology, but they know when people who say they believe in Christ behave in ways that are inconsistent with what Jesus teaches;
when we manipulate the truth with self-serving exaggerations;
when we accept economic policies that benefit the rich by denying the needs of the poor;
when we vote for candidates whose life styles are a contradiction of the most basic standards of truth or personal morality;
when we close our eyes to the subtle and persistent sins of racism, xenophobia, sexism and jingoistic nationalism;
when we are quick to resort to violence and slow to walk in Jesus’ way of peacemaking;
when we love to pray on street corners but fail to practice the disciplines of spiritual formation;
when anger and old-fashioned meanness contradict the way of mercy and forgiveness;
when we settle for our lives the way they are without stretching toward what they can become;
when we say we believe the creed but behave in ways that don’t look like Jesus.

In times like these, Jesus words come with painful and penetrating clarity:  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

Walk The Narrow Way 

David Brooks is just about the closest thing we have to a biblical prophet.  I plan to reread his powerful book, The Road to Character during Lent and hope you will, too.  In his recent sermon in the National Cathedral he reminds us that the teachers who made the biggest difference in our lives were not the ones who gave us an A+ because we walked in the door, but the ones who “started with a C- and loved us toward an A.”

That’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.  That’s what he meant when he said, “The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  He calls us to a way of discipleship that leads us toward the complete integration of our behavior with our belief. He challenges us to face our failures and continue to grow toward what Wesley called “Christian perfection,” the completion of God’s work of love in our human lives.

The Need for Ashes 

All of which is why we need to get our ashes in church next Wednesday.  (Pardon the corny play on words!)  ashwThe dirty smudge on our foreheads is the tangible reminder that we are all dust.  We are all mortal.  We are all imperfect people.  But they are also the sign of the grace that meets us wherever we are and loves us too much to leave us there.  Jesus accepts us with all our contradictions between what we believe and the way we behave and draws us toward the wholeness (holiness) of a life that is fully integrated with his will.

We follow the Teacher who meets us at a C- and loves us toward an A.

Grace and peace,

Jim

“The Present Crisis”

On Flunking Retirement

My wife says I flunked retirement.  I’d say that I get to do the things I want to do but don’t do things I have to do.  So, what have I been up to?

This is my tenth year as one of the facilitators for the Institute of Preaching and I’m helping some young pastors who are on their way to ordination.  In January I was one of the speakers on the EO Celebration Cruise through the Caribbean.  I preach and teach in churches and Conferences when the opportunities come along and I’ve been writing other things that have kept me from writing on this blog.

We just finished Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes Our World, the 2018 Lenten study from The Upper Room.  We’re in the final stages of development of Make A Difference: Follow Your Path…Find Your Place to Serve.  It follows up on A Disciple’s Path and A Disciple’s Heart by helping people live into the second part of our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world and will be released in the fall.

I’d say I have enough work to keep me out of trouble, but enough freedom to visit the grandkids in Orlando and Charleston, enjoy family travel and keep in touch with friends.  And, of course, Gator football season is not too far away!

With all of that, the dark shadow hanging over everything else right now is the continuing chaos surrounding the Trump administration.

“The Present Crisis” 

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was an American poet, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Great Britain and an ardent abolitionist.  In 1845 he wrote a poem entitled “The Present Crisis,” parts of which became the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” You can listen to it here.  Though it is no longer in our hymnal, the words stirred a teenage idealism in me that I’ve never been able to live up to or escape. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted the last four lines in his sermons.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Those words have been haunting me as we’ve lived into the early weeks of the Trump administration.

I first wrote about Trump two years ago when I raised my concern that “Donald Trump is appealing to ‘the worst angels of our nature’ by touching the chords of fear, racism, xenophobia, greed, and arrogant nationalism.” I’ve also described my concern about his sexual immorality, his total disregard for truth and his distain for the freedom of the press that is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.  All of those are fundamental contradictions of the biblical, social and spiritual values that have shaped my life.

But there is a deeper crisis lurking in the shadows of this Administration.

Mr. Goebbels Comes to Washington 

In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he appointed Joseph Goebbels as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. His job was to control the content of the German media in order to silence all opposition to Hitler’s agenda.

I could not help but think of Goebbels when I watched Presidential advisor, Stephen Miller, on the Sunday news shows last week.  His words were disturbing enough, but it was the cold, unflinching glare in his eyes that sent chills down my spine.  You can watch the collection of them here. This guy really means what he is saying. Here are some key lines.

“To say that we are in control would be a substantial understatement.”

“It is a fact and you will not deny it, that there are massive numbers of non-citizens in this country, who are registered to vote.” (A claim for which there is absolutely no factual evidence.)

“The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” (So much for separation of powers and Five Freedoms of the First Amendment.)

Equally disturbing was the President’s tweet the next morning:  “Congratulations Stephen Miller — on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”

The realities of our present time have taken me back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against the rise of Nazism from a profoundly spiritual, biblical and theological perspective.  I pray that we are not headed in the same direction but am reminded that every generation of Christian disciples is called to live into the clarity of conviction and commitment that guided him.

New occasions do, in fact, teach new duties.  May the Spirit of God teach us the new duties that the present crisis imposes on faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

“Inauguration Panic”

The First Rule 

Our 3-year old granddaughter is a lot like most of us.  When things are running smoothly, she is an absolute delight, a first rate joy-bringer.  But when things don’t work out the way she expected, when the milk gets spilled or a knee gets scraped, she can go slightly bonkers.  So, her parents are teaching her, “The first rule is ‘Don’t panic.’  We can fix this.  Things will be okay.”

During Advent, Mattie and her 1-year-old sister were learning the Christmas story. When her mother asked, “Mattie, what did the angel tell the shepherds?” Mattie replied, “Don’t panic!”  She got the message the angels proclaimed!

Inauguration Panic 

I’m trying not to panic over what lies ahead in the Trump administration; doing my best to look for signs for optimism; hoping against any rational reason for hope that something good will come from this peculiar election.  But just about the time I see a glimmer of hope, the President-elect sends another childish, viscerally-motivated, self-aggrandizing, truth-twisting Tweet…as if the complex issues we face at home and abroad could be understood or solved with 140 characters!

Without panic, here are two things that disturb me about what we have seen across the decades of Trump’s media-saturated behavior.

The “Post-Truth” President 

The Oxford English Dictionary picked post-truth as the 2016 “word of the year.”  They defined it as:

 “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influenctial in shaping public opinion than appeal to emotion and personal belief.”

An editorial in The Christian Century said we have moved into “a world in which widely available facts seem unable to dent the appearance of attractive falsehoods.”  A friend in the Air Force wrote, “The truth is declared a lie, lies are declared truth, and facts don’t matter. Lord, have mercy on our nation.” 

The same editorial said:

Truth telling involves having the humility to be corrected…There has to be a shared reality beyond self-interest for the concept of telling the truth to gain traction; otherwise speech is mere self-assertion.”  

The President-elect has consistently demonstrated an astonishing lack of anything akin to “humility to be corrected” along with an equally consistent willingness to lie, even when it means contradicting things we all heard or watched him say.

  • He refuses to accept facts confirmed by our Intelligence agencies.
  • He attacks responsible journalists who uncover unpleasant facts about his behavior.
  • He and members of his future Cabinet deny scientific facts about global warming.
  • His primary spokesperson said we should not listen to his words but to his heart…a suggestion as absurd as it is disturbing.  Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts…adultery, sexual immorality…false testimony, slander.”(Matthew 15:19)

Jesus promised, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) One of the most patriotic things people of faith can do will be to sort out objective facts from politically-adventageous fiction and to attempt to hold our post-truth President accountable to it.

“A Humorless as a Chicken” 

John Steinbeck described one of his characters in East of Eden as being “as humorless as a chicken.”  Have we ever seen the President-elect laugh? He appears to be the most joyless person on the national scene. It’s almost painful to watch him smile. He is utterly incapable of laughing at himself. By contrast, just about every President in my lifetime has had a winning smile and a memorable laugh.

That may seem like a small thing until you remember that during the most difficult days of his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln said that his sense of humor helped him maintain his sanity. The psalmist declared, “The one who rules in heaven laughs.”  And what makes God laugh?  God laughs at the arrogance of “the earth’s rulers” who “scheme together against the Lord.” (Psalm 2:1-4)

G. K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. Satan fell by force of gravity.”  A biblical scholar writing about the humor in the Old Testament said:

“We need to be able to laugh at ourselves…Maybe we wouldn’t be so destructive if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously…Laughing at kings is a way to not give the powerful the power they so pompously claim.”

I’m appalled by Trump’s vulgarity, greed and sexual immorality. (Whatever happened to “family values”?)  I’m disturbed by the way he pandered to some of the worst elements of racism and bigotry in the underbelly of our culture, his all too apparent narcissism and his vindictive attacks on anyone who dares to criticize him.  I fear for his distain for freedom of the press.  But his careless disregard for truth and his mean-spirited narcissism may be the things that frighten me most about what lies ahead.

But the first rule is, “Don’t panic.”  That’s not because there aren’t good reasons to be afraid, but because our Constitution is still in tact, because some of his Cabinet nominees have said they won’t hesitate to stand up against him and because our faith is deeper and stronger than anything that happens in our politics.  Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted James Russell Lowell’s powerful words:

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And beyond the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows,
Keeping watch above his own.

Our ultimate trust is in the God who consistently says, “Do not be afraid.”  Or, as Mattie puts it, “Don’t panic!”

Grace and peace,

Jim

Singing “Hallelujah”

Remembering Mom 

In four months, my mother would have turned 96.  That’s why I remembered Lucinda Matlock when she died on December 29.  Lucinda is one of the characters who come back from the grave in Edgar Lee Masters’ play, “Spoon  River Anthology.” She says:

At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,  
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

img_0002Mom left us the way a polite woman leaves a party. With help from Hospice she left us quietly, without making a fuss and at peace. She died the way she lived, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection and eternal life.”  

Singing “Hallelujah” 

One of my favorite memories of Mom comes from Easter, 2012.  Here’s the way I told the story in  “A Disciple’s Heart”.  

Halfway back in the congregation, my nine-year-old granddaughter tugged on my wife’s arm and said, “Gamma, look at Gampa’s face!” Then she made a shocked expression to mirror what she saw on my own.

We were singing the final hymn in the traditional Easter service, during which anyone who wants to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus is invited to come to the chancel, pick up a score and join the choir. The look on my face was an involuntary response when I saw my 91-year-old mother step out of the pew and start down the aisle leaning on her cane every step of the way. It reflected my concern about how she would make it up the steps into the chancel. We’re careful about getting her up just the one step into our front door. Fortunately, my son-in-law got his arm around her and supported her all the way. 

I grew up hearing my mother singing hymns at bedtime and in the kitchen, singing solos for weddings and funerals, and singing in the choir every Sunday morning. It’s no surprise to me that she loves Handel’s setting of the book of Revelation’s hymn of praise to the risen Christ. The choir sang it every Easter when we were growing up. She probably knows it by heart. She asked the organist to play it as we processed out of the Sanctuary at my father’s funeral.  

She doesn’t sing as much as she used to. Time and asthma inhalers have taken a toll on her voice. But this was Easter Sunday morning, and she wanted to get in on the singing. After the service she said she hoped I wasn’t embarrassed. I told her I wasn’t embarrassed, just concerned. She said, “Well, I don’t know if I’ll get to sing it again, so I wanted to do it today.”  

She will, of course, sing it again someday, in fuller voice and renewed strength when she joins the heavenly choirs. That is, after all, the promise of Easter. But Mom got it right. You shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to sing “Hallelujah” when you can, particularly when your great-grandchildren are watching. I felt like saying, “Go for it, Mom!”

Go for it, Mom!

And so the time as come.  We dare to believe that she is singing with the choirs that sing praise to God in Revelation.  We give thanks she sang when she could, and we’d like to join the singing. 

Grace and peace, 

Jim 

 

 

 

The Mystery in the Mess

The Great Mystery 

One of the most beautiful chants in the Christmas mass is “O Magnum Mysterium,” translated:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

In the hustle and bustle leading toward Christmas, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by taking a quiet moment to watch the choir of King’s College, Cambridge,sing it here. rubens-big

Each Advent as I move closer to Christmas Eve, I am more convinced that Anglican Bishop, Geoffrey Rowell, got it right when he described the Christian faith as “a revelation and a mystery–a revelation to be received and a mystery to be lived out.”  He went on to say that “notes of awe, wonder, reverence and reserve” are “essential characteristics of Christian believing.”  

There is a time and a place for intellectual analysis, skeptical debate and academic research around the doctrine of the incarnation, but Christmas Eve is not the time and the manger is not the place.  Here, the only appropriate response is awe, wonder, reverence and humility as we celebrate the mystery of the Word becoming flesh among us.

Charles Wesley caught the mystery in one of his little-known Christmas carols:

Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.

He deigns in flesh t’appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

Mystery in the Mess

And here’s the thing: Whatever else the incarnation means, it means that the great mystery of God’s love in Christ is alive among us in the complex, conflicted, confusing mess of our ordinary lives and our broken world. The great mystery is not an esoteric flight from reality, but a present experience in our very real world.  The incarnation is not just a doctrine to be believed, but “a mystery to be lived out” in the hustle and bustle, the joy and pain, the power and the politics, the hope and despair of our lives each day.

In fact, followers of Christ are called to be the continuing agents of God’s reconciling love and grace, not just on Christmas Eve, but on the other 364 days of the year.

Paul combined God’s mysterious work of reconciliation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with our work of reconciliation in the world when he wrote:

All this is God’s doing, for he has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ; and he has made us agents of the reconciliation. God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting their sins against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:18-19)

When it comes down to it, the great mystery is not only that God came among us in Jesus, but that God intends to go into the world in the lives of people like every one of us.  Now, that’s a great mystery!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Advent In “Trump World”

An Advent Attention Grabber

I’ll confess that the title is, in part, an attention grabber.  My news producer daughter would call it a “teaser.” Since you’re reading this, it evidently worked! But there’s also  truth in it.

With the election Donald Trump, we have entered into a new political world. There’s nothing “normal” about this President-elect. In many ways, we are now in uncharted territory; a new world in which Trump will influence the shape of our life together in disruptive and potentially damaging ways.

We are also in Advent. On the church’s calendar, Christmas isn’t here yet. Advent is the season of waiting for something that is yet to come; the time of longing for something that cannot be purchased online or at the mall; the weeks of hoping for a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.  People of biblical faith see the birth of Jesus in the context of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present and will accomplish in the future. We live in hope. (Romans 8:19-25)

Living the Vision

I’m just back from Columbus, Ohio, where I spoke on biblical hope to the clergy of the West Ohio Conference. The messages were grounded in Isaiah’s visions of God’s intention for this world which are among the lectionary readings for Advent:  Isaiah 2:1-5Isaiah 11:1-10Isaiah 35:1-10. (Please take a moment to read them.) swanson_peaceable_kingdom_7

I pointed out that these visions:

  • were given to Isaiah in desperate times when everything in the social and political world was stacked against their fulfillment;
  • are not esoteric, out-of-this-world visions but are entirely this-world visions of how God intends this world to be and will, in fact, become;
  • are consistent with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven; and
  •  invite faithful people to participate now in their coming.

The hope we affirm in Advent is the assurance that one day God’s saving, redeeming purpose which was revealed in the words, will and way of Jesus will be accomplished in this creation and we can get in on God’s action as we live and act in ways that are consistent with God’s vision.

Advent Hope In “Trump World” 

So, what does it mean to be faithful to God’s purpose in the new world into which our recent election is taking us?  A time in which the realities of the world around us seem to be stacked against the prophetic vision of peace,harmony, justice for the poor, and the healing of racial and social divisions.

Some people woke up on November 9 ready to celebrate that the new day had come. I’ve seen people on Facebook declare that God intervened and elected Donald Trump. (God might be surprised at that.)  Others are still wrestling with disappointment, despair and anxiety. Because both of those responses are very much alive in most United Methodist or mainline congregations, I reminded the pastors of things things that are true to our hope in every time and every culture.

  •  Wherever you are on the continuum between celebration and despair, let me remind you that God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God does not elect the President; the people do.
  • Let me remind you that this nation, as much as we love it, has never been and never will be the Kingdom of God on earth. Like every other nation and culture, our nation stands under both the mercy and the judgement of God. To whom much is given, much is required.
  • Let me remind you that according to the New Testament, our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Our ultimately loyalty is not to the flag, but to the cross.
  • Let me remind you that no political party exists in order to be a tangible, flesh and blood, real world expression of the Kingdom of God on earth. That’s the job of the Church.  That’s the task to which God calls us!
  • Let me remind you that Satan’s most relentless temptation is for the church to align itself with political power.  Jesus rejected that temptation in the wilderness. Whenever the church becomes aligned with any political party or power, the gospel always gets lost in the bargain.
  • Let me remind you that our task, as partners with God in the coming of the Kingdom, is to hold our nation and our lives accountable to the vision of the prophets and the values of the Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ.  When our nation’s polices or our leaders’ behaviors align with the values of the Kingdom, we give thanks. But when our nation’s policies or our leaders’ behaviors are not consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, it is our task to  call them to account and pray for God’s mercy.
  • Let me remind you, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Victory is assured! Because the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ declare forever that light has overcome darkness, that life has overcome death, that joy and laughter and peace and compassion and justice and caring and sharing, all and more have overcome their counterparts.”

If we believe that one day the kingdoms of this earth really will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ;

If we believe that one day swords will in fact be turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and nations shall learn war no more;

If we believe that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord;

If we believe that one day the hungry will be fed, the broken healed, the poor raised up and the powerful brought low;

If we believe that God has invited each us to participate in the coming of that vision, then we have a word of hope that can hold us when everything seems to be coming apart around us.

That’s biblical hope. That’s the stronghold of hope that can hold us prisoner, the kind of hope that can sustain us when everything is stacked against it. It’s the hope of something that is yet to come; the commitment to a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.

The prayer of Advent is always, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

What Will We Tell the Children?

Stunned and Searching 

By habit and profession, it’s my personal pattern to attempt to put words around things that are sometimes bigger than words can carry. So, here I go again, reflecting on the stunning surprise of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States. 

The election doesn’t change any of the concerns about Trump that I’ve written about in the past year, but it puts them in a different perspective.
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With the picture of my granddaughters going to the polls with their mother in mind, I’ve settled in on the question:What Do We Tell Our Children?

That’s a particularly challenging question because so much about the past behavior of our next President has been a bold-faced contradiction of the most basic values by which we try to raise our children. So, here’s my random attempt to answer that question. 

 

It’s great to live in America. 

We’ve been through the most divisive, mean-spirited, relentlessly fact-free and often vulgar political campaign in any of our lifetimes. But now that the votes have been counted, we move into another peaceful transition of power. Hillary Clinton’s concession speech represented something very good about being a citizen of this nation. 

Sometimes the bullies win.            

Our daughter, Deborah, who experienced her share of bullying in school, said it feels like the playground bully was elected Homecoming King. It’s a hard fact of life, but we can’t hide it from our children. Just because we try to be decent people who do our best to treat others the way we would like to be treated doesn’t mean that we will get chosen for the Homecoming court. The good guys don’t always win…at least not in the short run.

Sometimes people rise to the level of the task to which they have been called.  

Visiting Monticello and looking out across the Washington Mall this summer was a visual reminder of the ideals that gave birth to our nation and that continue to call us toward “a more perfect union.” We can hope and pray that as Mr. Trump prepares to take the oath of office he may feel called to rise above the vulgar, narcissistic, xenophobic, racist emotions that he unleashed during the campaign. If he lives into the words and spirit of his acceptance speech, it may be a sign of hope.

The arch of moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Dr. King often quoted that line as a way of giving hope to people during the civil rights movement. Our children need to know that the work of freedom and justice is never fully accomplished; we work toward a goal that is always beyond what we have achieved. In the words of Ted Kennedy: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Remember who you are. 

The thing that defines our identity is not that whether we are Republican or Democrat, win or lose, but that we are followers of Jesus Christ. That changes everything. Our primary citizenship is not in the USA, but in the Kingdom of God. (Philippians 3:20)  We are called to live by values that are sometimes consistent with our national values but are never superseded by our national interests.

I can’t help but pass along this message from my friend, Neil Alexander, who just retired as the President of the United Methodist Publishing House.

Welcome sorrow and defeat for all they can teach us about the depths of human experience and our reliance on the mercies of God and our need for each other.

Stand, sit or lay with all who suffer because in doing so we share a deep and wretched pain that awakens our souls and imaginations – and places us at the center of God’s graceful work in the world.

Do all of that and then by God get up, shake the dust from your shoes and start doing the things that make for genuine peace and merciful justice.

We lost last night. Big time.

What will we learn and snatch from the ashes of defeat? How will we awaken to the factors and forces that expressed their will with such ferociousness yesterday?  How will we increase our empathy for the aspirations and fears that made themselves heard while we stood by as if dumb and obtuse?

Let’s be alert and vulnerable, but not wallow. We will learn much from this. We will adapt and regroup. We will grow wiser and even more determined.

Trusting God’s promise we will not abandon hope. Instead we will boldly choose to live into hope by faith in things not seen.

We will not deny or hide our despair. But as we embrace it we’ll simultaneously turn on a dime and go to work.

We will not retreat or fade away. We will step up. We will choose life.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Why We Need “Saints”

All Saints’ Day — And Why We Need It

imagesToday is All Saints’ Day, the celebration for which “All Hallows Eve” was the dark night preceding the remembrance of those who have modeled the way, truth and life revealed in Christ and have joined the saints around God’s throne (Revelation 7:9-17).  I agree with John Wesley who called it “a day that I peculiarly love.”

It’s also a day we desperately need this year!

“This Ugly Year” 

David Brooks, who is becoming the biblical prophet of our time, described “this ugly year” when “the nation’s moral capital is being decimated.”

Brooks defined “moral capital” as “the set of shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible.” He could not have been more true to scripture than when he confessed, “Left to our own, we human beings have an impressive capacity for selfishness…the struggle for power has a tendency to become barbaric.” As a result, “decent societies” develop “codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect that girdle selfishness and steer us toward reconciliation.”

Then Brooks named the painful truth.

“This year Trump…dismantled the codes of etiquette that prevent politics from becoming an unmodulated screaming match. By lying more or less all the time, he dismantles the fealty to truth without which conversation is impossible. By refusing to automatically respect the election results he corrodes confidence in our common institutions and risks turning public life into a never-ending dogfight.”

Brooks also points to the contributions the Clintons have made to the diminishing of our moral capital, though by his outrageous behavior, Trump has dragged us into the gutter of some of the darkest urges of our darkest selves and has made acceptable language and behavior that our “codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect” have previously constrained.

Brooks called us to the “giant task of moral repair ahead of us.” He concluded,”The one nice thing about Trump is that he has prompted so many people to find their voice, and to turn from their revulsion to a higher alternative.” (You can read his entire article here.) Which brings us back to All Saints’ Day.

Our Need to Remember the Saints 

We need to remember the saints because they show us that “a higher alternative” is possible for all of us. Emily Dickinson wrote:

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies–

As a part of my personal spiritual discipline, I follow the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints. It provides a brief description of each person along with related scripture and the prayer for the day. I am continually reminded of the way otherwise ordinary people have become extraordinary witnesses for Christ by facing the opportunities and challenges of their time as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. They remind us that it is possible to go higher, in Paul’s words, to “seek the things that are above.” In Colossians 3:1-17, describes what Christ-like “moral capital” looks like.

So, on this All Saints Day, may we hear them cheering us on as we follow Christ to a higher, holier, more loving way of life.  As the children’s song says, “they were all of the saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” (“I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”)

Grace and peace,

Jim

“Sully” — The Humble Hero

Seeing “Sully” 

I didn’t think I wanted to see  “Sully.”  I went because my wife wanted to see it and on a rainy day on vacation, there wasn’t anything better to do.  After all, we all know the story of how he landed a USAir jet in the Hudson River.  Or do we?

Like most folks in our short-attention-span culture,  I lost interest in Chesley Sullenberger es_sully_2909after the story drifted from the headlines and the pictures were gone from the front page. I didn’t know that he nearly lost his wings in the NTSB investigation that followed.  I knew nothing about the man at the center of the story who is so beautifully portrayed by Tom Hanks.

I discovered a fascinating story and a surprisingly suspenseful movie about a genuinely humble hero who models a way of living and leading we desperately need to see these days.  Go see it and stay for the credits where you meet the real Sully along with some of the passengers he saved.  Perhaps you’ll find some of the same lessons I found in his story.

Experience Matters 

In a crisis, there’s no way that even the best technology can replace sheer human experience. Facing something that had never happened or been done before, the thing that made the difference was Sully’s calm judgement based on forty years of experience in the pilot’s seat. There’s nothing flashy, loud, bombastic or exciting about Sully, but all those years of experience prepared him to give calm, wise leadership when it mattered most.  The last thing you need in a crisis is someone with an erratic temperament who shoots from the hip.

Humility Matters 

By all accounts, Sully was both overwhelmed and uncomfortable with the attention that came his way.  He told Katie Couric, “I don’t feel like a hero.  I’m just a man doing a job.”

Humility has to be the least appreciated Christian virtue in our culture today.  It doesn’t mean being a doormat.  It’s what Paul was talking about when he wrote:

Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. (Romans 12:3) 

Teamwork Matters 

At the climax of the movie, when Sully’s actions were vindicated, a member of the NTSB congratulated him for what he had done.  He replied by saying that he didn’t do this alone.  He named all the people who were involved in the landing and rescue and said, “We did it together.”

Business consultant, Jim Collins called that “Level 5 Leadership.”  (I encourage you to listen to his 2 minute description here.) It’s the kind of leader who is more focused on the good of the whole than on his or her own success.  Humble hero would never say, “Only I can fix it.” They know that great things happen when everyone works together.

Others Matter 

The thing that mattered most to Sully was making sure that all 155 people on the plane made it to safety.  He was the last person off the plane because he went back through the seats to make sure no one was left behind.

I woke up the morning after seeing the movie with the lyrics of a long-forgotten song in my brain. I remembered it from the 33 rpm record by Tennessee Ernie Ford that was often on the turntable on the Motorola stereo in our home.

Lord, help me live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray
My prayer shall be for—Others

Others, Lord, yes others,
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.

We need “Sully” today as the reminder of the kind of leader who really makes a lasting difference in our world.  Cheers for the “Humble Hero.”  May his tribe increase.

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S. If you hear this as a subtle critique of the most arrogantly narcissistic candidate to run for President in our lifetimes and as an affirmation of one of the most experienced candidates we’ve seen, you heard it right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.