Unencumbered

unencumbered

[uhn-en-kuhm-berd]

adjective

  1. not impeded, or slowed down; free to move, advance, or go forward.
  2. having few or no burdens or obligations.
  3. not burdened or weighed down, as with bulky or heavy objects.

Unencumbered.  The word hooked my attention in the Upper Room Disciplines, when fellow pastor Paul Escamilla described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by saying that he came “in the humblest way…disinclined to greatness but very much inclined to goodness…ready to proceed unencumbered with the work at hand.”

Unencumbered. Not impeded by selfish pride, arrogance, or the fear of rejection.  Not weighed down with the freight of his own importance or wondering about his standing in the latest polls.  Not burdened with concern about how foolish it would look to enter the city on the back of a donkey.  Not slowed down by a need to calculate every move like a political candidate carefully framing every action to please a narrow constituency.  Free to move, to go forward, to walk with a calm spirit and steady pace in the way that would lead relentlessly to the cross.   Free to be obedient to the call of God on his life regardless of the consequences.

The hymn writer got it right when he said “we marvel at the purpose that held thee to thy course/while ever on the hilltop before thee loomed the cross.”  Jesus began the journey to the cross unencumbered.

Where did Jesus find that?  How would we find it?  What would it take for me to simply be who I am and do what I am called to do “unencumbered” by that things that get in the way of that kind of faithful obedience to the call of God in my life?

The Way of Humility 

When Matthew tells the Palm Sunday story, he reminds his readers of the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Look, your king is going to you, humble and riding on a donkey.”  (Zechariah 9:9)  The odd word there, of course, is “humble.”  Who really wants a humble king?  It sounds like an oxymoron.  Would anyone vote for a “humble” candidate for President?

To be humble is to be unencumbered.  It means letting go of the baggage of pride and the arrogance of power.  It means unloading the burden of all the self-aggrandizing stuff that the world identifies with power.

N. T. Wright, one of our wisest New Testament scholars, describes the Palm Sunday parade as “street theater.”  Jesus, entering the Holy City on a donkey, was coming from the East.  There was probably another parade coming from the West.  Pilate would have been coming into the city with all the pomp, pageantry and power of a king.  Wright says that the contrasting parades force the question upon us:

We don’t know if Jesus timed his own mini-play, coming in from the east, to coincide with Pilate’s triumphant arrival, but people may have linked the two and would be asking themselves: Which story do we belong to? Which king do we belong to? Which is the reality, and which is the parody?

Sometimes, we are tempted to merge to two parades together, to attempt to make the way of Jesus compatible with the world’s ways of political power.  Jesus resisted that temptation in the wilderness, but a lot of supposedly bible-believing people are falling for it as they merge a distorted version of Christianity with the lust for political power.

But it won’t work.  The drama that begins with Jesus riding humbly on a donkey will end with him nailed to a cross.  In the words of one of the Church’s earliest affirmations of faith, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:8)

So, the words of the traditional collect for Palm Sunday leads us to pray:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Grace and peace,

Jim

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A Light We Cannot See

Facing the Darkness 

The editorial note in the Spartanburg, South Carolina “Herald-Journal” announced that this would be Chris Barrett’s final column.  Easter Sunday will be his final Sunday as pastor at St. James United Methodist Church.  It will probably be his last Easter Sunday in this life.

I met Chris and his wife, Elise, shortly after they graduated from Duke Divinity School and began in their first pastoral appointments.  His final newspaper column faces the reality of his condition with rare honest and genuine faith.  I offer it to you as a word that can lead us toward the cross and resurrection.

Light We Cannot See 

A little over a month ago I received the bad news. My lymphoma we had hoped had been eradicated by a bone marrow transplant had returned. It was a devastating diagnosis, particularly because we had just celebrated the second anniversary of my transplant, which is typically the point in time when a bone marrow transplant can be declared a success.

As it happens, the diagnosis of my relapse came two days before the beginning of the season Christians call Lent…On this Ash Wednesday, days removed from a diagnosis that gave me months to live, I found myself in a hospital gown kneeling on the floor of the Medical University chapel, with a good friend and colleague stooping low to intone those words: “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.”

In the days and weeks since that sacred reminder, not a moment goes by that I am not aware of how mysteriously and dreadfully it is that our bodies come from the earth only to return to it. Barring a miracle, my body’s return to the elements will be sooner than I would like. This makes me and those who love me sad. It cuts short time we would’ve or could’ve or might’ve … done whatever, gone wherever, accomplished however much.

If Lent does nothing else, however, it begins our lifelong training in accepting the darkness of our current reality as a means of recognizing the light that awaits. As the Christian contemplative Richard Rohr says, “All light must be informed by darkness, and all success by suffering.” Or, as Arlo Guthrie once famously said: “You can’t have light without a dark to stick it in.”

The darkness of the current days is the precondition for the light and life of God to enter and transform hopelessness into fulfillment, misery into appreciation, grief into joy. In the Christian tradition, this means that we don’t get to Easter without going through Lent.

This is not to diminish the difficulty of whatever darkness we may face. Whether dealing with imminent death or some affliction or addiction or restriction, we all must face our limits, the boundaries of our strength and ability. It is all part of learning to trust in a strength beyond our own: a light we cannot see, a peace we cannot make, a wholeness we cannot achieve by our own striving. As St. Paul says in Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

All this is not to say that there’s nothing for us to do in the midst of the darkness. The fact is, I’ve worked as hard preparing for my final days as I’ve worked for just about anything in my life. I recognize, however, that whatever I get done between now and the day of my death, it will always be incomplete. The ultimate outcome — of the seeds I have planted in my ministry, the family I have loved and helped provide for, the friends in whom I have delighted — the ultimate outcome depends on the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. This is the news that brings light to our darkness. This is the fulfillment of the promise that this Light — the Easter Light — has not, and shall not be overcome.

I close with words attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who knew what it was to walk through darkness. I challenge you to do something today that would not make sense if these words weren’t true:

“This is what we are about.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” (http://www.goupstate.com/article/20150317/ARTICLES/150319770/1101/living?p=3&tc=pg)

Holy Darkness 

May the darkness of Holy Week prepare us for the light of Easter morning.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Pass the Pi and Ice Cream, Please

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It’s Pie Day…and I almost missed it!  Oops.  Not “pie,” which I never pass up, but “Pi,” which I’ve never understood. But all around me, folks who know more than I know about science and math are about as excited about “Pi Day” as I am when someone offers me a piece of cherry pie, hopefully warm and with ice cream.  (My wife also makes apple and pumpkin pies that are to die for!)

So, I asked myself, what’s the big deal?

I finally got it that this year’s “Pi Day” has Pi-users and lovers in a tizzy because at 9:26:53, the time will approximate Pi to ten places: 3.141592653.  From there the numbers keep going into infinity.  They are calling today the Pi Day of the century, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you’re excited now, pass me some whipped cream.

Then I came across an article in “The New Yorker” that answered the question, “Why Pi Matters.”  Here’s the line that hooked my attention like the tang of a Florida key lime pie.  “The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach…Pi touches infinity.”

Now, there was something I could sink my fork into.

Touching Infinity 

My thought leaped to the mind-stretching words of Paul to the Colossians:

“He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…all things have been created through him and for him…and in him all things hold together.”  (Colossians 1:15-17)

Paul was restating the shocking words of the epistle of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  (John 1:1-3, 14)

Explain that?  You’ve got to be kidding. I can no more explain that than I can explain the meaning of Pi.  (Or, for the matter, explain why cherry pie with ice cream sets my taste buds dancing.)

But here’s the deal.  Although I cannot explain Pi, I know that Pi explains just about everything that has to do with geometry, mathematics or engineering, all the way from measuring the size of a pie plate to building the Skyway bridge. Although I cannot explain how the Word became flesh in Jesus, knowing him explains just about everything I need to know about the essential character of the infinite God and just about everything I need to know about how to live in this finite creation.  In Jesus, I can touch infinity and know that it is very good.

Now, where is that pie?

Grace and peace,

Jim

Out of the Freeze and Fire

Grounded in the Past  

The past two Sundays have found me preaching in two very different churches that were both born in the aftermath of a crisis.

Trinity UMC in DeLand, Florida, was our first pastoral appointment forty-three years ago.  Preparing to preach for their 120th anniversary, I learned that it was born in the aftermath of Florida’s “Great Freeze” of 1895 which wiped out agriculture across the state.  The church history says: “Several hearty, brave and faithful individuals and families persevered and chartered what is now known as Trinity United Methodist Church.”

Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., was founded by Henry Foxhall as a expression of gratitude to God that his foundry was left standing after the burning of the city in the War of 1812.  Their history says, “In a city often characterized by transience and change, Foundry has remained a steadfast beacon—long recognized for its commitment to mission service, social justice, and reconciliation.”

Born in the freeze and in the fire, they reminded me of Sir Robert Shirley. In the middle of the English Civil War he built a church in Leicestershire that still stands today. The inscription over the door reads:

“In the year 1653 when all things sacred were throughout ye Nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church, whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in ye worst times and hoped them in the most callamitous.”

In different places, with different stories, Trinity and Foundry are both here today because across the generations, faithful people have dared to do the best of things in the worst of times and to have hoped for them when times seemed calamitous. They bear witness to Paul’s words about Abraham:  “Hoping against hope…no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith…fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”  (Romans 4:18-21)

Committed to the Future  

But if that were the whole story, both churches would be little more than religious monuments to the past.  The good news is that while both churches are grounded in the past, they are looking to the future.  In both congregations I experienced that power of the Holy Spirit at work among people who are energetically committed to doing whatever is necessary to invite people to experience God’s love in Christ, to be drawn into community with one another, and to be a part of God’s transformation of their world.

That’s the spirit in which the letter to the Hebrews was written. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is the roll call of the saints as the writer reminds the readers of all the faithful people who went before them.  But the writer doesn’t leave us there. The 12th chapter opens with a stirring challenge:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  (Hebrews 12:1)  

Then the epistle challenges hearty, brave, faithful disciples in every age:

“Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12-13)  

I came home from these churches giving thanks for the privilege of be a part of churches that have a long history and are committed to the future.

Grace and peace,

Jim