Who Do You Hate? Who Do You Fear?

Who Do You Hate or Fear?

In Nashville last weekend to speak at the national Christian Educator’s Fellowship conference, I worshipped at West End United Methodist Church.  It’s a hulk of an English Gothic cathedral across the street from Vanderbilt University where traditional worship is as good as gets.  When the organist pulls out the stops (literally), the organ can shake your bones and the choir can make your spirit soar.  There’s a good reason that great “traditional” worship is still around.

In his sermon, Michael Williams told the story of a pastoral colleague who, in preparing for the annual stewardship emphasis, asked a friend who was a political fund-raiser for some advice.  The fund-raiser said, “Tell me who you hate.” The shocked preacher replied, “We don’t hate anyone…we’re the church.”  The fund-raiser went on, “Then, tell me who you fear.”  The preacher said that he didn’t really fear anyone.  The fund-raiser said, “Well, if you don’t have someone to hate or fear, then I really can’t help you.”

The comment is as accurate as it is disappointing.  It confirms the way our current political climate is driven by hate or fear.  If you watch the ads in Florida these days, the next governor will be chosen on the basis of who we hate the least.  Our panic-stricken reaction to Ebola is more an evidence of media-driven fear than medical knowledge.  Unfortunately, it can even happen in the church when we discover that other equally-faithful disciples may see things differently than we do.

Who Do We Love?  Who Loves Us? 

As I continued in worship, I realized that the great word of the gospel is not who we hate or fear, but who we love and the One who loves us.  Whenever hate or fear slither into the life of the church, they are a Satanic corruption of the gospel and a betrayal of the faith.  It’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (II Timothy 1:7)

My friend and colleague, Steve Harper, has modeled the way of love for the church’s conversations about homosexuality and same-sex marriage in his recent book, “For the Sake of the Bride”.  It’s a powerful personal witness of what it can mean for followers of Christ to live together in a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.

Loving others and knowing that we are loved by God may not be the most effective way to raise money for political campaigns, but it’s the only way to follow Jesus.

Celebrating “Disciple’s Path” 

Also in Nashville I spent a day in meetings at the United Methodist Publishing House.  The good news is that nearly 55,000 people have used “A Disciple’s Path”.  The reports from different kinds of churches across the nation confirm that the Spirit is using it in ways that goes beyond all of our expectations.  Praise God!  The follow-up resource,“A Disciple’s Heart”, will be released in February.  Join me in praying that these resources will be a part of the renewal of our denomination.

Grace and peace,

JIm

A Passion for the Right Things

Passionate for the Right Things 

The friend I wrote about last week died on Monday. Last week’s blog became a part of the sermon I preached in the Memorial Service this morning at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, where he was a charter member and served on the first building committee.

As we faced his death, his wife said, “He was always passionate about the things we should all be passionate about.”

In a day when passions often seem to run roughshod over wisdom (i.e., the media-fed panic about Ebola), being passionate about the right things seemed like an important enough word to become the framework for my sermon. I’ve attached it here as a witness of my gratitude for Neil’s friendship and the hope that sustains us in his death.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Neil James Memorial Service
October 17, 2014
James A. Harnish

Thirty-five years ago this summer, we moved into a newly-constructed house on Banyan Blvd. to start a new United Methodist congregation. The District Superintendent handed me a pile of cards with the names and addresses of people who had expressed some interest in the new church in a survey that had been done by the United Methodist Men.

As I left the house to start knocking on doors, Marsha suggested that I find a family with daughters for our five and seven year old daughters to play with. She said it would be nice if they had a pool.

Neil and Bonnie’s home was one of my first stops because they were right around the corner on Marlberry Dr., which was one of the few streets I knew how to find. They had been Methodists in Ohio, they were interested in the new church, they had a daughter exactly the same age as our oldest, and they even had a pool.

From that moment on, Neil and Bonnie became some of the best friends we’ve ever had. They were charter members of this church. Neil served on the first building committee. We were charter members of the Dr. Phillips Rotary Club. Bonnie and Marsha helped open the new Dr. Phillips Elementary School. One of my favorite memories is of walking around the neighborhood with our kids on Halloween. Our daughters grew up together. Today Carrie and Holly they live on the same street and their children are growing up together the way they did.

We’re here today because we all have similar stories. We’re here because we are among the fortunate people whose lives intersected with the life of Neil James. And we’re here because people like Neil are hard to find. We’re here because they are even harder to lose.

As we’ve been sharing talking about Neil this week, someone said that he was always passionate the things we should all be passionate about. He was, of course, passionate about golf, but they were referring to other, deeper things.

Neil was passionate about his family: his sister, his brother, and, most of all, the high school sweetheart who became his wife. For 52 ½ years they’ve made this journey together – from house to house, state to state, and country to country: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in healthy, to love and to cherish, as long as life would last and then some.

Who could ever forget the sound of Neil’s laughter when he would say, “Now, Bonnie…” and the way she would laugh and say, “Oh, Neil…” What a team!

Neil was passionate about being a great father for Holly and Neil. When Carrie posted the message about Neil on Facebook, one of the kids who grew up with them wrote:

Sand Lake Hills was a wonderful place to grow up. I thought all neighborhoods had loving families like the James…Now as an adult, I see how blessed I was to grow up in a neighborhood, where people prayed for each other, and showed up when help was needed.

Another said:
We were lucky to live in a neighborhood with loving, supportive parents like Bonnie & Neil.

He was passionate about being Poppie to Mason and Molly. He showed us all what it looks like to be a great brother, husband, father and grandfather. People who love the way Neil loved are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

Most of us are here today because Neil was passionate about friendship. Anyone was richly blessed to be able to claim Neil and a friend. And Neil had an unusual gift for taking all kinds of people into the circle of his friendship.

One of Bonnie’s favorite stories to emerge this week came from a high school friend in Ohio, which in and of itself says a lot. How many of us still have friends from high school? Here’s what she wrote:

Tears welled up in my eyes as the memories of him in high school overcame me. Neil, though fabulously famous in our school because of his athletic skills, particularly football, was never an egomaniac “jock” but always humble and so nice to all of us. A memory that does not leave me is of a very heavy, homely, quiet, lonely and unpopular girl named Veronica. Many boys teased, said unkind things about her, to her, “bullying” nowadays. Many times I saw Neil speaking to her, walking with her in the hall to a next class. I will never forget that. What a good and kind human being, in spite of his being just about the coolest guy in our class.

When Bonnie said, “That’s so Neil.” And we would way the same thing.

The writer of the Old Testament Proverbs said: “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.”

Neil was passionate about friendships, and so, just the way Jesus wept beside the grave of his friend Lazarus, we are unashamed to weep today because friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

And then, in his own way, Neil was passionate about faith.

Faith was not easy or simplistic for Neil. He was a ravenous reader with a brilliant and questioning mind. He was, in fact, a lot like Thomas in the gospels, often known as “Doubting Thomas” because every time he appears in the gospel, he is asking questions, searching for truth, until finally, he meets the Risen Christ face to face and falls before him saying, “My Lord, and my God.”

As I thought about Neil, I remembered the words that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in memory of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, who, like Neil, died far too soon. Tennyson wrote:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone…

St. Paul could have been talking about Neil when he wrote: “Now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now, we understand in part, but then we shall understand fully, even as we have been fully understood.”

By faith, that’s the promise we claim for Neil today. We dare to believe that, like Thomas, Neil has come face to face with the Risen Christ, and now, in the new life of the resurrection, he understands fully even as he has been fully understood by God.

People like Neil are hard to find. They are even harder to lose. But it would be even harder to live this life without them. We gather here, in the church that Neil helped to build, to claim the hope and promise of the new life of the resurrection.

This summer family members from all across the country went back to Pennsylvania for my Uncle Frank’s funeral. He was quite a guy; in many ways the glue that held us all together. When my brother spoke in the service, he quoted Maurice Boyd, who for many years was the preacher at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Boyd said that one of the most common questions people ask at funerals is whether they will see and know their loved ones in Heaven. After years of offering biblically-sound, intellectually-responsible and totally unsatisfactory answers, Boyd decided to be like Jesus and answer the question with another question. When people asked, “Will I see my loved ones in heaven?” he replied, “Would it be Heaven if you don’t?”

Then Jack went on to quote Maurice Boyd’s words:

The older I get, the less interest I have in eternal life….if, by eternal life, you mean mere extension. But if, by eternal life, you include the possibility of blessed reunion, then you have offered me something priceless and precious, and I will pray to my death that you are right.

When we were planning the service, one of the hymns that emerged as a favorite is “When We All Get to Heaven.” We gather at the church Neil helped build to give thanks for his life, to face the painful reality of his death, and to claim the promise and hope of the resurrection, and of the blessed reunion in which we will all be gathered together again.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Neil’s life. Thanks be to God for the gift of Neil’s friendship. And thanks be to God for the hope and promise of glad reunion in through the resurrection of Christ our Lord.

Good Friends Are Hard to Lose

Good friends are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

Thirty-five years ago this summer, we moved into a newly-built parsonage in a new development called Sand Lake Hills in West Orange County to start a new United Methodist congregation. The District Superintendent handed me a pile of cards with the names and addresses of people who had expressed some interest in the new church in a survey that had been done by the United Methodist Men.

As I left the house to start knocking on doors, Marsha suggested that I find a family with daughters for our girls to play with. She said it would be nice if they had a pool.

The home of Neil and Bonnie James was one of my first stops because they were right around the corner on one of the few streets I knew how to find. They had been Methodists in Ohio, were interested in the new church, had a daughter exactly the same age as our oldest, and they even had a pool.

Neil and Bonnie became some of the best friends we’ve had. They were charter members of what became St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Windermere. Neil and I were charter members and successive Presidents of the Dr. Phillips Rotary Club. Bonnie and Marsha were actively involved in opening the new elementary school in the neighborhood. Our daughters grew up together. Today they live on the same street and their children are growing up together the way they did.

Friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose.

Three years ago Neil, who played basketball in college and might have become a professional golfer, was diagnosed with a rare, debilitating condition called Lewy Body Dementia. As I write these words, he is under Hospice care and we are waiting for him to die.

If it’s true that men sometimes have a hard time sharing themselves in deep, honest, vulnerable friendships, I have been surprisingly and richly blessed. Neil was the kind of friend who always told the truth. He brought out the best in me and I can only hope that I did the same for him.

Faith was not easy or simplistic for Neil. He was a ravenous reader with a brilliant and questioning mind. The words that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in memory of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, could also be said of Neil.

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length

To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone…

Friends like that are hard to find. They are even harder to lose. But it would be even harder to live this life without them.

We will gather at the church Neil helped build to give thanks for his life, to face the painful reality of his death, and to claim the promise and hope of the resurrection in which we will all be gathered together again.

Cockroaches and Cathedrals

Cockroaches and Cathedrals 

The folks at  “Faith and Leadership” keep us up to date with daily news of trends and changes in the world of religion. A recent issue shared two contrasting articles that capture the tension around Christian worship in the 21st Century.

First, was the story of the transformation of Robert Schuller’s “Crystal Cathedral” into Christ Cathedral for the Roman Catholic diocese of Orange County, California. The same building that was once on the cutting edge of connecting with the 20th Century culture, failed in the next generation and is being retro-fitted as a place for worship that reaches back into the ancient traditions of the Christian faith.

Second, was the story of Rich Wilkerson, described as the “hipster pastor” of Miami, who is willing to do anything — including eating a cockroach – to get people to come to his church in order to introduce them to Jesus. (I’ll confess that I had never heard of this guy before reading this article.)

What can we learn from contrasting stories like that?

For folks who think that tradition is dead, it may be the reminder that any church that marries itself to the present culture is likely to be forgotten by the next. What is cool, hip and effective in one generation may be irrelevant for their children. The Crystal Cathedral had its day, but was unable to sustain itself over the long haul, while the ancient traditions of Catholic worship have an amazing way of weathering the changes of the world around them.

After a couple decades of “seeker” worship that attempts to reach people by doing away with all of the trappings of traditional worship, some of those “hip” congregations are already looking out-of-date, while there are signs that younger generations are rediscovering the power of some of the most ancient practices of the faith.  After all, how many times can you eat a cockroach?

On the other hand, it’s also the reminder that folks who are unable or unwilling to change their methods “to serve the present age” (a powerful phrase written by Charles Wesley in the 18th Century) often end in the Hospice of religious tradition with no one to care for them at the end.

When it comes down to it, it’s always the tension between “mission” and “method.” If our mission is to share the love of God in Christ with people who have never experienced it, then we must be willing to use any method – old or new, traditional or hipster – to do it.

Becoming More Vile

John Wesley faced this challenge in 1739 when George Whitfield invited him to come to Bristol where Whitefield was preaching to people in the fields and on street corners. Wesley didn’t want to go. He wrote in his Journal:

 “I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields…I had been all my life…so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

 He was teaching on the Sermon on the Mount when he realized that it was “one pretty remarkable precedent field-preaching.” He experienced the way Whitfield was reaching people who would not have felt welcome in the church. Finally, he wrote:

 “I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…to about three thousand people.” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.iii.i.html)

 He decided that reaching people for Christ took priority over protecting tradition. He was willing to change his methods to fulfill God’s mission. And because he “submitted to become more vile,” Methodism swept across England and we are here today.

Leaving “Left Behind” Behind

Some might say that the movie version of the “Left Behind” novels is an attempt to use a new method to fulfill the mission, but what we communicate is really more important than how we communicate it.

The most disturbing about the whole “Left Behind” business is that some people actually believe it represents something the Bible actually says. Many of the things that the movie reviews reviews say about the film could also be said about the theology behind it. Roger Scholtz simply called it “malarkey.”

An article in “Ministry Matters”offered a concise analysis of the historical roots and biblically inaccuracy of the “Left Behind” version of eschatology. For a more biblically responsible view of “end times,” I recommend N. T. Wright’s book, “Surprised by Hope”.

I believe it’s time for biblically-rooted Christians to leave the “Left Behind” malarkey behind and grab onto a biblical vision of hope!

Grace and peace,

Jim