Helpless!

(An email from the editor of MinistryMatters asked if I had any word to offer in response to the flooding along the Gulf Coast.  I found that word in last Sunday’s lectionary Psalm and next Sunday’s Old Testament reading.)   

Are We Helpless? 

Helpless! The word reverberates in our souls when we see people being rescued from the roofs of their flooded homes. It beats in our hearts as we watch water-soaked people make their way through chest high water to crowded shelters with a child in their arms, a few possession in a plastic bag, or carrying nothing at all. It stretches our imagination when we see aerial views of flooded cities and destroyed businesses and homes. It haunts our minds as we wonder what we can do that will make any real difference in this massive sea of suffering. kash-fld

Is there any word from the Lord that touches the deep flood of helplessness we feel?

A Word from the Lord 

Providentially, the lectionary for the Sunday after Harvey takes us to the burning bush, where Moses hears the Lord say, “I have clearly seen my people…I heard their cry.” (Exodus 3:7) The good news is that God is not absent or indifferent. God is not blind, insensitive or hard of hearing. The God of infinite compassion sees, hears, feels, and shares our suffering. We are not alone.

The disciples felt helpless when they were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 4:35-41) But Jesus heard their cries. He spoke the words, “Be still!” and “the wind settled down and there was a great calm.” The calming of the water was equal to the calming of their fears. The calming word for our helplessness is that God is with us. We are not alone. It led Charles Wesley to sing:

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.

But what about our helpless feelings when we watch the flood but not in it? Is there a word from the Lord when we see other people’s suffering from a distance? We cannot stop the storm. We cannot erase the impact of global warming or the absence of city planning that led to paving over the earth that might have absorbed more of the rain. We cannot replace all that has been lost. Are we helpless, too?

As it was for Moses, the word of the Lord for us is, “Get going.” (Exodus 3:10) We are not helpless! The compassion of God that moved the Samaritan to do what he could for the helpless man on the side of the road calls us to get going; to do whatever we can to relieve some part of the suffering we see.

Bonaro Overstreet wrote her poem,  “Stubborn Ounces” for “One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything.” She confessed that we often think our little efforts make very little difference. She described them ounces dropped onto the “hovering scale where justice hangs in balance.” But she ends her poem with the bold confidence that she gets to choose “which side will feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.”

Sometimes everything we have to give seems like “stubborn ounces,” just tiny drops of compassion dropped into a massive flood of loss and suffering. But God has a miraculous way of using small gifts to bring great healing, hope, and the strength to go on. Every “flood bucket” or “hygiene kit” we send, every gift we give to UMCOR, every prayer we offer can become the expression of God’s love and the witness of God’s presence for the person who receives them.

The lectionary Psalm for last Sunday prepared us for this week.

If the Lord hadn’t been for us…
the waters would have drowned us;
the torrent would have come over our necks;
                  then the raging waters would have come over our necks!

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 124:1, 4-5, 8)

Because we know the Lord is for us, we are not helpless!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

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Statues and Splinters

Jesus said, How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:4-5)

I had a splinter under my finger nail not long ago.  It was a small thing.  I ignored it for awhile. But finally it became so painful that I had to dig it out.  The splinter had to go.

About Those Confederate Statues 

A statue of Robert E. Lee Unknownused to welcome worshippers to Duke University Chapel.  Lee’s likeness stood between Thomas Jefferson and the Southern poet, Sidney Lanier.  The sculptors inscribed “US” on his belt buckle, perhaps suggesting that we remember who Lee was when he fought for the United States instead of the Confederacy.   Years ago someone chiseled away at those letters, no doubt an attempt to protect Confederate “heritage.”  It was vandalized again last week after the events in Charlottesville.

Lee has been there since the chapel opened in 1932.  Many people never noticed.  Those who did accepted it as a small thing, a remnant of Southern history.  But this week the presence of Lee’s statue, like a splinter under a finger nail, became so painful that it had to be removed.

Splinters and Logs 

The problem is that just removing statues is too easy.  It can make us feel like we have done something when we haven’t begun to touch the subtle forms of racism that are imbedded in our culture and our lives. It’s a little like removing sprinters without paying attention to the logs.

The logs are much harder to remove. To get at them, we have to dig deeper into our hearts to confront the subtle influence of racism that is so deeply imbedded within us that we don’t even realize it is there.  That’s why Jesus asked the disturbing question: How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?”

Only a Beginning 

The President of Duke University knew that removing the statue was just a beginning.  He wrote:

We have a responsibility to come together as a community to determine how we can respond to this unrest in a way that demonstrates our firm commitment to justice, not discrimination; to civil protest, not violence; to authentic dialogue, not rhetoric; and to empathy, not hatred.

He formed a commission that includes faculty, students, staff, alumni, trustees and members of the Durham community to “assist us in navigating the role of memory and history at Duke.” His commission will “recommend principles drawn from Duke’s core values to guide us when questions arise.”  That’s then kind of work it takes to remove the logs along with the splinters.

A Matter of the Heart

For followers of Christ, the heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.  At the center of the Methodist tradition is John Wesley’s emphasis on the process by which the Spirit of God fulfills the promise, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) Wesley called it “sanctification” or “being made perfect in love.”  It’s the process we described in “A Disciple’s Heart”.

It’s not enough to remove stone statues.  We also need to heal stoney hearts.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

How Long, O Lord?

“I Thought We Had Come Farther Than This” 

My phone rang shortly after the President’s self-revelatory rant yesterday.  With tears in his voice, a wise friend, a native of South Carolina, said, “I thought we had come farther than this.”  He went on to say that he is fearful for the future of our country.  He wondered if there is any hope.

In a sadly ironic twist of history, Monday was the day the Episcopal Church remembers Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels_girl_small-182x210He was a 29-year-old student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Martin Luther King, Jr., called for people of faith to come to Selma to support the voter registration drive.

Daniels was among a group of non-violent protestors who were arrested on August 14, 1965.  They were held in overcrowded cells with no air conditioning and toilets that spilled sewage onto the floor until they were unexpectedly released on August 20. They were entering a store to get a drink when Tom Coleman confronted them with a shotgun.  When Coleman fired, Daniels shielded 17-year-old African American Ruby Sales and died instantly.  Coleman was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

The Company of the Martyrs

Johnathan Daniels was just one of many martyrs whose lives were taken by white supremists during the civil rights movement.  Those were a fraction of the thousands of Black Americans who suffered and died at the hands of white lynch mobs throughout the South, particularly in Central Florida.  Those were a fraction of the victims who died in the Holocaust and the millions who died to defeat Nazism.  The martyrs of racism and bigotry are too many to count.

We thought we had come farther than this.  But now, a new generation of Neo-Nazis and white nationalists have come out of the dark shadows of the past to confront us again with their hatred, bigotry and violence.

Yesterday, while David Duke and his followers were laughing and cheering because they have a friend in the White House, all of the martyrs around the throne (Revelation 7:9-17) were weeping and crying, “How long, O Lord?”  (Psalm 13)

How Long? 

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his answer to that question at the end of the march from Selma on the steps of the Capital in Montgomery.  The entire address is well worth hearing again today, but he concluded with words that became a energizing refrain to many of his sermons.

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because “no lie can live forever.” (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because “you shall reap what you sow.” (Yes, sir)

How long? (How long?) Not long. (Not long.) Because

Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)
His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)
Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on!  (Applause)

 

Where Is Hope? 

While I shared the disappointment, fear and concern that my friend expressed on the phone, I reminded him that our hope is in the Kingdom of God which is stronger than the forces of evil around us.  However long it takes, God’s Kingdom will come and God’s will will be done on earth even as it is in heaven.

Glory, glory hallelujah!

Jim

 

Central Avenue Is Where We Belong

The Church on Central Avenue 

While speaking for the Georgia Pastors’ School a few weeks ago, I met a retired pastor and her husband who are natives of Fitzgerald, Georgia.  They confirmed the story I had heard from Bishop Lawson Bryan.

Fitzgerald was founded in 1895 as a community for Civil War veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy.  Streets on the east side of the city are named after Confederate ships and generals while streets on the west are named after Union ships and generals.  Central Avenue runs through the middle of all of them.

And that’s where you’ll find Central United Methodist Church.

525070_556621741028483_19008093_nIt was formed in 1939 when the Methodists in the North and South who had been divided since 1844 reunited to form The Methodist Church, which became The United Methodist Church in 1968.

The story reminded me of Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

“Christ is our peace…With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)  

According to Paul, Central Avenue is right where we will find Jesus and it’s right where his followers belong.

Central Avenue Isn’t Easy Street 

I’m sure that life in Fitzgerald was not always easy.  Simply naming the streets would not have been enough to heal the wounds that Civil War veterans still carried.  There was every possibility that a former Yankee and a former Rebel who had seen each other on the battlefield might bump into each other on Central Avenue.  But that was a risk the veterans who moved to Fitzgerald were willing to take.

It wasn’t easy for the Methodists, either.  Forty-four years would pass after the founding of Fitzgerald before First Methodist Episcopal Church and Central Methodist Episcopal Church South would come together to form a new church.  Another 29 years would pass before the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction which had maintained the separation of white and black congregations in our denomination.  We still have work to do on that one!

In the metaphor, Central Avenue is not the “mushy middle.” It is not the lowest common denominator between opposing convictions.  It takes more strength of character and depth of faith to reconcile divided people and “create one new person out of the two groups” than it does to stay in gated compounds where everyone thinks the way we think and from which we can lob verbal cannon balls at people on the opposite side of the street.

Reconciliation isn’t easy, but it is precisely the task to which we are called. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”  (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)  

Come to Central Avenue!

In 1844, Methodists in America were sadly a mirror image of the national polarization over slavery.  Instead of demonstrating the power of reconciliation, we succumbed to the power of division.

The forces of polarization are again tearing our nation apart today.  The same forces of division are at work within The United Methodist Church as some of our fellow Methodists make plans for separation if they don’t get their way.

  • Is it too bold to pray that this time around we will not repeat the painful history of 1844?
  • Could “the people called Methodist” become a tangible witness to the reconciling love of God revealed at the cross?
  • Might the Holy Spirit find a way to “create one new person out of the two groups, making peace”?
  • Are we willing to be the church on Central Avenue?

I’d say it’s a risk well worth taking!

Grace and peace,

Jim