Living in Herod’s World

A Story We Wish Wasn’t There 

It’s Epiphany, the day when those mysterious magi parade onto the gospel stage. (Matthew 2:1-12) Unfortunately, Matthew can’t tell their story without telling a story we’d like to avoid.  (Matthew 2:16-18) Leon Cognate captured the horror in Scène du massacre des Innocents  (“Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents”).cogniet

Who Was Herod?

Herod was “both a consummate politician and clumsy and ineffective, adroit in his use of power and blindly cruel.” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary [ABD], Vol. 3, p. 169)

Herod personified “a world of power [and] conspicuous consumption…His skilled brokering of power, his shrewd acquisition of immense wealth, his use of Greek theater to shape people’s thinking and values, his architectural splendor giving everyone a sense that their king was all-powerful and majestic.” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 198, 201, 203)

Herod was the builder of extravagant palaces, fortresses, theaters, temples, culminating in the Herodium, the manmade mountain where he was buried. (ABD, p. 168-171)

It was normal behavior for Herod to lie, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” (Matthew 2:8)

His authoritarian rule provided security, prosperity and political power for the cozy cadre of religious leaders and political sycophants who fed his ego and obeyed his orders.

Personally, Herod was a pathologically insecure narcissist who was obsessively driven by his fear of any threat to his position and power. (ABD, p. 161) He demanded loyalty from the people around him (ABD, p.164) and exiled or executed anyone who questioned his authority.

That’s why he was “troubled” when the magi came looking for a newborn king.  The more troubled he was the more troubling he became, resulting in the slaughter in Bethlehem.

I’m sure there were good people who found a way to justify his policies or ignore his bad behavior.  I remember hearing Holocaust historian Franklin Littell recount a conversation with a German church leader who, as Hitler was rising to power, assured him, “Adolf Hitler is God’s man for Germany!”

Herod’s World and Ours  

Does that description of Herod sound familiar? You probably noticed some striking similarities between Herod’s world and our world, epitomized by our President and those who are enabling him.

And then there is Bethlehem. The “voice heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving” could be the voices of refugee mothers whose children aren’t allowed into our country, unemployed fathers whose children will not have health care without CHIP, expectant parents in Puerto Rico who have no functioning hospital delivery room and families who will be torn apart without DACA.

But our world, like Herod’s world, is the world into which Jesus is born; the world he came to save.

Holy Refugees 

Joseph hardly needed an angel to tell him to get out of there! (Mathew 2:13) I found this carving in a wood shop behind St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Durban, South Africa.

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The carver makes his living by carving religious figures from discarded lumber and broken tree trunks. It portrays the reality of refugee families who, like Mary and Joseph, flee from violence and oppression.

Why Herod? 

Why does Matthew give Herod a leading role in the gospel drama?

Matthew was a hard core realist. The former tax collector knew about financial corruption and political power. He  drew a stark contrast between the kingdoms of this world ruled by the likes of Herod and Pilate vs the Kingdom of God reveled in Jesus. His gospel shows us how to live that Kingdom life right now.  Jesus’ followers are called to hold every political leader and system accountable to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, praying that it would become a reality now, among us, even as it is already the reality of Heaven.

The tension in Matthew’s gospel is captured in Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)  Matthew forces the choice upon us: Herod’s way or Jesus’ way? The kingdom of this world’s corrupted politics and self-serving power or the Kingdom of God revealed in Christ?

Matthew offers a word of hope when he records, After King Herod died…” (Matthew 2:19) Like every autocratic ruler, Herod “struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more.”  (Macbeth, Act V)  After Herod does his worst he becomes little more than a calendar page to establish Jesus’ birthday.  And when Herod was gone, Jesus came back. (Matthew 2:19-23)  

When my first book, a study of Mathew’s gospel titled What Will You Do With King Jesus?, was published in 1986, I could not have imagined the parallels to our world in 2018. Now, perhaps more than ever before in our lifetimes, it’s the question Matthew challenges us to answer.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ring Out the Old…Ring in the New

Beginnings and Endings 

Becca Stevens is the most inspiring person I met in 2017. She is an Episcopal priest, an author and the founder of Thistle Farms, a life-transforming ministry of recovery and social enterprise for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction.  12923288_10156784985305611_4888667385524284798_n-e1479161015679The women of Thistle Farms are living proof that “Love Heals.”

Becca was the writer for last week’s devotions in The Upper Room Disciplines. She wrote:

Every beginning in our lives has an ending. Each ending marks a new beginning. Always we begin anew with confidence that we will not be alone.  We live in faith that God meets us in all our futures.  Wherever life leads us God is with us. 

Her hopeful words reminded me of an old poem to which I often return at the beginning of the year.

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

One of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s greatest works grew out of his most painful loss, the death of his best friend and his sister’s fiancé, Arthur Henry Hallam, at age 22.  Tennyson worked on In Memoriam A.H.H for 17 years, which suggests that the way from grief to hope is not a sprint but a marathon.  He marked his poetic journey with the passing of three Christmas celebrations.

Midway through the poem, there’s an abrupt change in rhythm and spirit.  Tradition says it was written after Tennyson awoke to the ringing of the bells in Waltham Abbey.  His words have an amazingly contemporary ring as we enter 2018.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

For Your Spiritual Growth 

Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are just around the corner (February 14).  This my invitation for you to use Easter Earthquake as a part of your spiritual discipline.

41HPb-i2sIL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a daily guide to scripture, reflection and prayer which centers our Lenten journey in the resurrection.  You can also participate in an online study that a includes my video commentary and other resources at Upper Room eLearning.

My prayer is that the Spirit will use this study to energize people with the hope of new life in the resurrection.

Happy New Year!

Jim

‘Twas The Day After Christmas…

On the Day After Christmas

A 1990 editorial in The New York Times  called W. H. Auden’s poem, For the Time Being “one of the most powerful expressions of the meaning of Christmas in the 20th century.”

The writer acknowledged that it “will never replace The Night Before Christmas or the seasonal pageant at Radio City Music Hall,” but it is “a Christmas that can glimpse redemption even in the trivialization of Christmas, a Christmas for the day after Christmas. This is a Christmas for grown-ups.”

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
(“For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”  W.H. Auden: Collected Poems)

The Times editorial concluded that the challenge of the poem is “to recognize the miracle of God’s entry into all that is routine and mundane.”

May the Christ who came among us at Christmas be the One we find in the mundane days of our lives.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Christmas in the Chaos

Christmas in the Chaos

Do you feel that we are attempting to celebrate Christmas in the middle of social and political chaos?

Marco Rubio got it right when he called Donald Trump “a chaos candidate” and predicted that he would be “a chaos President.”  Whether you agree with him or not, the daily (sometimes hourly) tweets and impulsive behavior of this President are the perfect match for the 24-hour cable TV news chatter that reinforces the chaotic pace of life in our technologically frenetic time.

My friend, Stephen Bauman lives and serves in the vortex of the chaos as Senior Pastor at Christ Church United Methodist in the heart of New York City. In this week’s devotions in The Upper Room Disciplines he wrote:

Wow!  Is it ever hard to cut through the clutter and noise and info bits and videos and pics and whatnot and hooha! We find it hard to sit still, quietly, intentionally, prayerfully, allowing ourselves the holy luxury of spiritual perplexity…Our time consumed by many trifles, we leave little in reserve for the things that matter most of all hiding in plain sight but lacking the snap-crackle of Instagram and Snapchat flicking across our consciences like a stone skipping on the water.

Phillips Brooks captured the deep truth that we could easily miss when he wrote:

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

A Moment for Mystery 

rubens-bigSo, here’s my invitation for you to take a seven-minute moment to experience the “holy luxury” of mystery by watching the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, sing “O Magnum Mysterium”.  The words are 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!

But the words don’t matter as much as creating a quiet space to allow the presence of Christ to enter into the chaos of our lives.

May you experience Christ in the chaos this Christmas!

Grace and peace,

Jim

What’s Coming?

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A brilliantly prophetic article by David Brooks helped explain how some evangelical Christians have been able to deny so many long-held Biblical values to support Donald Trump and Roy Moore. But it also defined one of the factors that is driving so much of the animosity and polarization that plagues our current culture. I encourage you to read it here.

Reading Brooks this week spoke to me about why we need to pay attention to Advent before rushing headlong into Christmas.

The Siege Mentality

Brooks diagnosed a “siege mentality” that grows out of “a sense of collective victimhood.” It’s a feeling that “the whole world is irredeemably hostile” resulting in a pervasive pessimism. He concluded that “the siege mentality floats on apocalyptic fear.”

Don’t miss the adjective “apocalyptic.” The biblical word means “uncover.” It reveals what we believe the future will be. The “siege mentality” assumes that everything is going from bad to worse and results in a self-righteous confidence that “we are the holy remnant.”

“The siege mentality also excuses the leader’s bad behavior. When our very existence is on the line we can’t be worrying about things like humility, sexual morality, honesty and basic decency. In times of war all is permissible. Even molesting teenagers can be overlooked because our group’s survival is at stake.”

The Siege Mentality in Scripture 

When we bypass Advent to leap directly to Christmas, we miss reading scriptures that reflect the very real fears and frustrations of our time. You can hear the “siege mentality” in the lectionary Psalm for the 1st Sunday in Advent.

Shepherd of Israel, listen!
    You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
    You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself!
    Wake up your power!
    Come to save us!
 Restore us, God!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved! (Psalm 80:1-3)

It’s in the background of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence… to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 64:1-2)

Bypassing Advent to rush on to Bethlehem, we miss Jesus’ apocalyptic vision: “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”  And we fail to hear his challenge:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)

What’s Coming?

Everything depends on what we believe is coming. What’s our apocalyptic vision? What do we most deeply believe, not only about what the world is coming to, but about what is coming to the world?

The Advent scriptures lift our eyes beyond the present moment to the promise of the day when God’s salvation revealed in Jesus will be fulfilled for the whole creation.

The message of Advent counters our fear of the future with confident hope. It invites us to prepare not only to remember Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but to live in anticipation of his final victory over every power of injustice, violence, suffering, sin and death.  It challenges us to live now in ways that are consistent with the way the world will be when “the kingdoms of this earth become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.”

With that hope, we face all the very real challenges of our time not as victims, but as victors; not on the basis of our fears but our faith; not as a “holy remnant” that is under siege from the powers of evil, but as ordinary people who participate with God in the extraordinary work that God is doing to redeem, save, heal and restore this broken, bruised, conflict-ridden creation. In that confidence, we can relate to other people not out of the scars of our hurts, but in the strength of our healing.

The Advent vision is picked up in many of traditional carols, including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, you men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling, 
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Christmas is coming, sure enough. And just as sure is the promise of the coming of God’s reign of love, justice and peace.  We live in hope!

May an Advent of hope lead us to a joyful Christmas!

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Than Enough!

Have mercy on us, Lord! Have mercy
    because we’ve had more than enough shame.
We’ve had more than enough mockery from the self-confident,
    more than enough shame from the proud.
(
Psalm 123:3-4) 

Enough of Men Behaving Badly 

Harvey Weinstein…Kevin Spacey…Bill Cosby…Bill Clinton…Al Franken…Bill O’Reilly…Roger Ailes…Roy Moore…Charlie Rose…and, of course, our self-confessed sexual-assaulter-in-Chief, Donald Trump.

In fairness, each case is different. Some accusations are far more significant than others. Any of us can be tempted to or accused of bad behavior.  But all the stories have one thing in common, namely, the way men in positions of power abuse, assault, or sexually harass women and girls (and sometimes boys or younger men).

The difference at this moment in time is that the crack in the dike has broken open and women who were expected to put up with bad behavior in the past are now telling their stories in ways they’ve not been empowered to do it before.

Another difference is the way different men have responded to the accusations, from the arrogant denial of Roy Moore to the confession and apology of Al Franken or Charlie Rose.  There are also different reactions, from immediate dismissal by the news and entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood to the protective defense by supposedly Christian pastors in Alabama. Talk about irony!

What’s a Pastor to Do? 

So, what’s a Christian pastor supposed to say or do?  While the image of Christian clergy is being severely damaged by folks like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell,  a host of otherwise unknown pastors in out of the way places are leading lives of faithful witness, moral character and humble service.  So, a few random responses that have been working their way through my mind and heart.

    • I’m grateful for the United Methodist Church.  
      In the ’70’s our denomination’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women began training clergy about sexual assault or abuse.  United Methodist clergy are not immune to temptation or moral failure, but our denomination has done all it can to train us and to provide a just process for dealing with accusations. (You can learn more here.)
    • Believe the women.  
      I realize that an accusation can be as damaging as a conviction and that there is the possibility of being falsely accused.  It happened to one of my friends.  But an attorney friend who deals with these issues continues to point out that the women are usually correct, particularly when they are courageous enough to confront a man who holds power over them.
    • Focus on Christian character.  
      The Road to Character  by David Brook is one of the most important books of our era. UnknownHe diagnoses the “Big Me” that has led to “the rise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement…our basic problem is that we are self-centered.”  (I’d say Trump is the not the cause of our problems, but the ultimate expression of the narcissism of our culture.)

Brooks sounds like a Methodist preacher when he describes what he calls “the Humility Code.” (p. 261-267)

“We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.”
The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.”

“Humility is the greatest virtue.”
“Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.”

“The things that lead us astray are short term–lust, fear, vanity, gluttony.  The things we call character endure over the long term–courage, honest, humility.”

“No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.”
“Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside–from God, family, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions and exemplars…You have to draw on something outside yourself to cope with the forces inside yourself.”

“We are all ultimately saved by grace.”
“Grace floods in…Gratitude fills your soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.”

“The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.”
“The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness…because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right.  That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses.”

Men Behaving Well

I give thanks for the men I know who demonstrate that a life of Christian character is not only possible, but is more than worth the effort.  I give thanks for the men who continue to show me what it look like to love, honor and respect the women with whom we live, work and serve. I give thanks for men who have walked with me in the past and for those who will continue walk with me in the future. I give thanks for the women who continue to hold me accountable for my behavior.  I give thanks for the sons-in-law who treat my daughters with respect and for the grandsons they are raising.  And most of all, I give thanks for the woman who chose to share life with me, and for the daughters and granddaughters who see in her life what it looks like to be a woman of Christian character.

Have mercy on us, Lord!  We’ve had more than enough of men behaving badly. As the old hymn says:

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things.
Give heart and mind and soul and strength
To serve the King of kings. 

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

Until Then…

My Problem with Halloween 

Sorry to be a buzzkill, but I’m not a big fan of what Halloween has become in the US.

I love its history as a day to remember the joke God played on the powers of evil through the resurrection.  It’s fine for small children.  One of my favorite memories is walking around our neighborhood with a couple other Dads as our children went knocking on doors.  But since adults and Walmart got into it, the whole thing has gotten out of hand.  I don’t want to have my teeth cleaned by a witch or do my banking with a clown.

Of the $9 billion Americans will spend on Halloween this year, the money for candy alone would provide 1.5 million homeless and extremely poor people with three hot meals every day for a year.  And that doesn’t include the added trips to the dentist after they consume all that sugar! (You’ll find the disturbing statistics here.)

“A Day I Peculiarly Love” 

By contrast, I’m a big fan of All Saints’ Day which John Wesley called “a day I peculiarly love.”  It’s the day we remember those who have gone before us and are now present with us in the “communion of All-Saintsthe saints.”

Charles Wesley taught us to sing:
“Let saints on earth unite to sing
with those to glory gone,
for all the servants of our King
in earth and heaven are one.”

It’s also the day that points toward the promise of that day when God’s Kingdom will fully come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  It reminds us of the promise that though “now we see in a mirror, dimly, then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

“Until Then” 

When we call the names of those who have joined the saints around throne (Revelation 7:9-17) in the past year, I’ll be remembering my mother. She used to sing an old gospel song that says:

Until then my heart will go on singing,
Until then with joy I’ll carry on,
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me home.

As followers of the Risen Christ, we are called to live now in ways that are consistent with the way we believe things will be then. Jesus’ parables are clear that the question is not “When is Jesus coming again?” but “What will I be doing when he gets here?”  The question is not “When will Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God be fulfilled?” The question is “How am I participating in that Kingdom among us right now?”

  • We care for the environment Now because Then the renewed creation will be the place where God will be at home with God’s people. (Revelation 21:3)
  • We work for peace Now because we know that Then swords will be turned into plowshare and spears into pruning hooks and people will not learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
  • We work to overcome racism and ethnic conflict Now because we know that Then Heaven will be filled with people from every race, tongue and nation. (Revelation 7:8-9)
  • We invite others to follow Jesus Now because we know that Then every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:10-11)
  • We care for one another in Christian community Now because we know that Then God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Revelation 21:4)
  • We feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners and seek economic justice for the poor Now because Jesus said that’s the way every nation will be judged Then. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Writing from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared:

“There remains for us only the very narrow way of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future…It may be that the day of judgement will dawn tomorrow, and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a  better future.”

Go ahead and have fun on Halloween.  But remember that it is just the dark night before the dawn of the new day of resurrection.  Until then, keep on keeping on!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Busy With What?

Wishing Jesus Hadn’t Said That   

Some folks call my wife Marsha, the nickname she acquired in college, but her parents named her Martha. And it fits!  She really wishes Jesus hadn’t said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41)

Martha_and_Mary_by_He_Qi_ChinaMartha was busy in the kitchen fixing supper for Jesus and his disciples while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”  She had good reason to ask,  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”  (My Martha has been known to say something like that to me!)

It helps to notice that Martha’s story comes immediately after Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan with it’s closing command, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) That may be the story Jesus was telling when Martha came in from the kitchen. The back-to-back stories paint the picture of the basic rhythm of the Christian life.  It’s the balance of being and doing; prayer and action; listening to Jesus’ words and doing what Jesus tells us to do.

Jesus’ word to Martha is a hard word for hyperactive, do-it-now, get-the-job-done Americans to hear.  Our tendency is often to “go and do likewise” rather than to “sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he is saying.”

We Methodists are generally “go and do likewise” people.  Our version of a familiar nursery rhyme goes:

Mary had a little lamb,
She also had a sheep.
She joined the United Methodist Church
And died for lack of sleep.

Busy With Prayer 

Yesterday was the day when the Episcopal Church remembers Vida Dutton Scudder. Her life demonstrated the rhythm of  intense social activism and vibrant spirituality. She wrote, “If prayer is the deep secret creative force that Jesus tells us it is, we should be very busy with it.”  

It led me to think about what it means to be as busy with prayer as I am busy with so many other things in my life.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal.

O God, I want to believe that the best, deepest, strongest thing I can do in response to what I see in the world around me, my concerns for the United Methodist Church, and my deepest hopes for my children and grandchildren is to be busy in prayer….spending quiet time in your presence so that your Spirit can shape my thinking, transform my convictions, inspire my hopes, and be alive in my relationships.

Prayer doesn’t mean pounding on the door of heaven to present my list of demands to you, but living in humble openness to the often unnoticed way your Spirit enters into our world and our lives, often in ways we never would have asked or demanded.

Busy with prayer means being soaked in scripture so that the Spirit who inspires the written word can make it a living word in us.

The Cure for Our Anxiety

Don’t miss the way Jesus told Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”  So much of the tension and anger of our times is rooted in anxiety and fear.  It’s when we are busy in prayer that we discover the peace Paul promised when he wrote:

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7) 

The promise is that if we are busy in the spiritual disciplines of prayer and reflection on scripture, we will experience a peace that is beyond human understanding.  Then we will be ready to “go and do likewise” with a calm courage, gracious patience, and relentless hope.

What if the only effective way to be busy doing things is by being just as busy in prayer? At least it’s worth trying!

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  When my wife read this blog to approve of my use of her as an example, she said, “I still wish he hadn’t said that!”

Something the Storms Blew Away

The Longest Night

The night Irma came to Eagle Lake was the longest night of the year!

When her 120 mph winds swept over our house it was as if we were sitting in a train station with high speed, non-stop trains roaring past. We wondered if the windows could withstand the pressure and if the old cedar tree and the newly planted magnolia would still be standing when the sun came up.

We were among the fortunate ones, unlike so many people in Houston, Key West, or Puerto Rico for whom so much was blown away.  The windows held, the trees are still standing, and insurance will help cover the cost of a new roof.

What can we do to help people who have lost so much?

Before the power came back on, we sent another donation to the United Methodist Committee of Relief (http://www.umcor.org) and started collecting items for “flood buckets.”  As it always is, UMCOR was ready to meet the real needs of real people and provide the rest of us with a way to serve.  Faith-based agencies like UMCOR are usually the first into the crisis and the last to leave.  Because it receives denominational support, every dollar designated for a specific need goes there.

The Longest Word

That’s when I remembered the longest word in the English language: Antidisestablishmentarianism.

It was planted in my brain when a young contestant correctly spelled it to win the prize on the 1950s TV show, The $64,000 Question. It’s actually the longest “non-coined” word (Mary Poppins takes that prize with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) or the longest technical or medical term.

In the 19th Century it identified a movement that opposed displacing the Anglican Church as the established church in England, Ireland and Wales.

One of the things that gets blown away by natural disasters like Harvey, Irma, Maria or the earthquake in Mexico is the disestablishmentarianism of our time. Politicians who get elected by promising to tear down the Federal government are the first in line for FEMA funds when the storms hit their states. People who are determined to slash government spending expect the first responders to be on call in a crisis.  And folks who wonder if these weary, old, mainline, denominational churches make any difference in our world are grateful when agencies like UMCOR are ready to help.

It’s just one of the reasons that I can’t give up on finding a way to hold the United Methodist Church together.  UMCOR is just one example of the way the really important things that bind us together — our Wesleyan theology, our history, our tradition, and our mission — are stronger than the things that divide us.  If we Methodists can find a way to be in ministry together while honoring the diversity of our convictions, we may have a critically important witness for our deeply divided nation.

Join the Movement 

That’s why I feel called to be a part of the Uniting Methodists movement.  If you are a United Methodist and share this conviction, I hope you will join us!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Your “One, Wild and Precious Life” Make a Difference?

The Shameless Commerce Division 

Saturday mornings will never be the same without NPR’s “Car Talk.” You didn’t need to know anything about cars to enjoy the Magliozzi brothers humorous chatter which ends this month.

If you were a fan, you’re familiar with their “Shameless Commerce Division.”  You could put this post in the same category, but I share it because I hope it will helpful to faithful people who are searching for the way their “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver’s beautiful phrase) can make a difference in this world.

“Make A Difference” includes the stories of real real people who have discovered the unique way they can make a Christ-like difference in this world.  9781501847585I’m grateful for each of them and for many others whose stories didn’t make it into the book, but who have shown me what it looks like for followers of Christ to participate in the ongoing work of God’s Kingdom, coming on earth as it is already fulfilled in heaven.

I’m particularly excited about the DVD  that accompanies the book.  The young leaders who gathered around the table with me are the kind of people who give me great hope for the next generation of leaders.

This resource completes the journey that began with “A Disciple’s Path” by exploring what it means to live into the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

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It led through  ” Disciple’s Heart”  to  “Earn. Save. Give.”  Finally, “Make A Difference” leads us to discover how we can become participants in God’s transformation of the world.

I’m humbled by and grateful for the way the Spirit is using these resources and pray that they will continue to make a real difference in the real lives of real followers of Jesus Christ in this very real world.

Thanks for listen…now back to “Car Talk.”

Grace and peace,

Jim