It Seems Like Yesterday

January 28, 1986, was a stunningly cold, crystal clear, sun-bright day in Florida.  I was at my desk in the church office in Orlando, working on my Lenten sermon series.  I knew there was a lift-off that day, but I confess that I had become so accustomed to them that I no longer rushed out to the parking lot to watch every time there was a launch from the Cape.

Suddenly a woman dashed into my office, shaking from head to foot, tears running down her cheeks as she said, “The Shuttle just exploded!”

Challenger Explosionss-160127-challenger-lookback-14_e06d43354b26514cd84f44fe80f81894.nbcnews-ux-1024-900

We went outside and stood for a long time staring speechless at the streak of white of cloud that began on the horizon, arose in a perfect arc into the sky, and then stopped abruptly.  It lingered in the still blue sky much longer than those trails usually did, a mute witness to an immense tragedy.

If my generation lost its innocence the day JFK was shot, this was the day our children lost theirs.

Meeting the Teachers 

Two hours later an official called from NASA.  They were bringing the finalists in the “Teacher in Space” program back to the Hilton Hotel on International Drive and wanted a pastor to meet them.  They had trained with Crista McAuliffe and had come to celebrate the launch.

They were exceptionally ordinary people:  a social studies teacher from Houston, an astronomy teacher from New England, an elementary school teacher from Bowling Green, Kentucky.  I listened to their stories.  I felt their grief, pain and loss.  But the thing I remember most clearly is their sense of determination.  They were determined that this tragedy would not be the end of travel into space.  They were determined that the program should go on and in spite of the risk and danger, if given they opportunity, they would be ready to go themselves.

I came away knowing that I had met people who had discovered what it means to be willing to give their lives to something larger than their own self-interest; people who had found a life worth living.

The Urgency of the Gospel 

I was a different person when I returned to my desk the next morning.  Ash Wednesday was just around the corner the way it is this year. We were focusing our attention that year on the gospel of Mark.

As I reread the gospel, I realized that the sense of determination and urgency that I experienced with those teachers is at work in the way Mark tells the story.  Mark’s gospel moves with a relentless urgency.  He writes with short, brisk, energetic sentences that move us irrevocably toward the cross.

I felt the same sense of inner determination when Mark records that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  (Mark 8:31)

I heard with different ears Jesus’ words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  (Mark 8:34-35)

Love That Won’t Let Go 

At a bare minimum, the gospel says that being a Christian is not about self-aggrandizement but about self-surrender to something bigger than ourselves; it is not about protecting ourselves, but about giving ourselves away; it is not about holding our lives tightly, but about being held by a love that is stronger, deeper and more powerful than our own.

While I enjoy and appreciate much of “contemporary” Christian music, most of what I hear can’t get close to the depth, wisdom and sheer power of George Matheson’s great hymn, “O, Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” He said he wrote it out of his own suffering.  I’ll include the words below, but I encourage you to watch and listen to the most amazing arrangement of the hymn that I have ever heard.

 

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

May the Love that never lets us go lead us to a life that follows the way of the cross to new life in the resurrection.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

“Gotcha Day”

“Gotcha Day”

Let me tell you about our grandchildren. Four became ours by birth; one became ours by adoption. Deborah and Dan were at the hospital when Mattie was born. We were there when they brought her home and welcomed her into our family. We celebrate October 24 as the day Mattie was born. But our daughter also celebrates December 20 as the day the judge declared that Mattie is officially ours. Here’s what she wrote on Facebook this year.

“Happy Gotcha Day! This was the day the Judge declared that Mattie is stuck with us forever. No take backs. Love this girl like crazy. Can’t wait to see who she becomes. God is good.”

 Who Tells You Who You Are?

Last Sunday churches that follow the traditional worship calendar celebrated the baptism of Jesus when Jesus heard “a voice from heaven” that spoke directly to him, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) The same voice spoke to Isaiah, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

In remembering our own baptism, we listened for that same voice speaking directly to each of us, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.”

When the baptismal liturgy calls us to “remember your baptism and be grateful,” we are invited to hear again the voice God saying, “This is your ‘Gotcha Day.’ You are my beloved Son, my beloved daughter. I have called you by name. You are mine. No take backs.” That’s who we really are.

But there’s more…

Who We Are To Become

In her “Gotcha Day” post, Deborah not only celebrated something that happened in the past. She also looked toward the future when she wrote: “Love this girl like crazy. Can’t wait to see who she becomes.”

The voice that names us as children of God is also the voice that declares who we are called to become. Our identity as sons and daughters of God defines the way we are called to live.

Shortly after Mattie was born, her then ten-year-old cousin asked her mother, “Will Mattie grow up to look like Aunt Deb and Uncle Dan?” That’s an intriguing question because Mattie is black. Her birth parents are African-American. Julia’s mother answered, “Mattie won’t look like Aunt Deb and Uncle Dan, but as she grows up with them she will become like them in a lot of other ways.”

We don’t have a clue as to what Jesus actually looked like. None of us will grow up to look like him, but as we live with him, as we follow him, as we listen to his words, as we surrender our way to his way, we are called to become like him in other ways. We are called to think the way Jesus thought, to love the way Jesus loved, to live the way Jesus lived.

Do Christians Look Like Jesus?

The most disturbing thing to me about what’s happening in our country today is that so many people who claim to be Christians simply don’t look, speak or act like Jesus.

  • I’m, disturbed by how easily people say they believe the bible but act as if they have never read the Sermon on the Mount.
  • I’m disturbed by how easily we say we believe the gospel but never allow what Jesus actually said to make a difference in the way we act, the way we relate to people who are different than we are, the way we vote.
  • I’m disturbed by the way people who pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth place a higher priority on the political and economic values of the kingdoms of this earth when it comes to their politics.
  • I’m disturbed by the disturbing question that Jesus asks every one of us, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do the things I do?” (Luke 6:46)

And the world takes notice of the conflict between what we say we believe and the way we live.  Take, for example, the way supposedly “evangelical” people have been drawn to Ted Cruz.

David Brooks sounded like a gospel preacher when he described Cruz’s rhetoric as “pagan brutalism.”

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace…Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy… Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack….He sows bitterness, influences his followers to lose all sense of proportion and teaches them to answer hate with hate.

The God who names us as God’s beloved children beside the waters of baptism in worship is the same God who calls us to live like Jesus in the world. It not only tells us who we are; it defines who we are to become.

So, here are the critical questions for every baptized follower of Jesus:

  • Am I more like Jesus today than I was yesterday?
  • Is my life more deeply formed by what Jesus said, the way Jesus lived today than it was six weeks ago?
  • Am I more loving, more compassionate, more faithful today than I was a year ago?
  • Does the way I speak, relate to other people, use my resources, and vote bear witness to the will, way and words of Jesus?
  • If not, why not? And what steps do I need to take to become more like him?

Remembering “Gotcha Day,”

Jim