The Ways We Die

Even Smartphones Will Die

The headline from The Financial Times hooked my attention:  “The smartphone is eventually going to die, and then things are going to get really crazy.”  It was a technological reminder of the truth we heard on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”  None of us will get out of here alive.

The question is not if or when but how we will die. Not “how” in terms of a medical diagnosis, but “how” in terms of the spirit, attitude or faith with which we face our death.

How Jesus’ Died  

Each gospel writer tells the crucifixion story differently, like different artists capturing what happened on 9/11 in their own unique way. Listening to Jesus’ last words and reflecting on the ways I’ve seen people die led me to music that felt like a commentary on the biblical text. I hope you’ll take time to listen to the music in this message as a part of your journey through Holy Week.  (You’ll be surprised to discover that none of them are Wesley hymns!)

“My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

The last words Jesus speaks in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 33:34 are known as “the cry of dereliction,” defined as “the state of being abandoned or deserted.”  There’s no getting around it.  Jesus spoke the way we feel but are often afraid to express when he shouted at a silent sky, “My God, why?”  

Because Jesus asked that question, we can ask it, too. It’s the gut-wrenching question we ask when death comes at a time and in a way that we never expected.  It’s the cry of the parent whose child is killed by a drunk driver on the highway, hit by stray bullets in an urban ghetto, or buried beneath the rubble of bomb blast in Mosul.  With Jesus, we scream the question toward a leaden sky and listen in silence for an answer that doesn’t immediately come. 

Looking back from this side of the resurrection and Pentecost, Paul Jones offered the Trinitarian answer in The Shack when he had Papa say, “We were there together…Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.” (p. 96, italics his.)  It’s the mystery of the incarnation that led Paul to declare that at the cross, God was “in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”  (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Feeling my way into the darkness of of Jesus’ cry took me to the dark feeling of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  The final verse says:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

One of the ways we face death is with the pain-soaked cry, “My God, why?”

“It is finished!” 

Of the translations I read, only J.B. Phillips adds the exclamation point to Jesus’ words in John 19:30.  It captures the mood of the newer translations that say, “It is completed.”  In John’s gospel, Jesus’ takes his last breath saying that the mission for which God sent him has not been defeated; it has been accomplished, completed, fulfilled!  It is not a cry of resignation or defeat, but a breathless shout of victory, even in the darkest, loneliest, most miserable moment of the world’s rejection and horrendous death.

Some people die with a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude, satisfied that they have done what they were called to do.  In their own imperfect way, they have been faithful in their life of discipleship.  It’s what Paul meant when he said, “I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

That sense of fulfillment reminded me of Vachel Lindsay’s poetic description of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”.  The wildly extravagant musical version by Charles Ives captures the exhuberant celebration as the founder of the Salvation Army leads his company of “vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, unwashed legions with the ways of Death” into heaven where they “marched on spotless, clad in raiment new…And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.”

One of the ways we die is with gratitude knowing that our work has been completed.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  

And then there is Luke, my favorite of the gospel writers.  Only Luke records Jesus telling the criminal on the cross, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Luke 23:43) Immediately after offering that unexpected word of undeserved hope, Luke records that “darkness covered the whole earth…while the sun stopped shining.”  In that impenetrable darkness, Luke hears Jesus “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’”  (Luke 23:44-46)

All I can say to that is, “Wow!  What a way to go!”

Like Jesus, some folks die with absolute peace that comes from unrelenting assurance in the love of God and the hope of resurrection.  People don’t generally pick up that peace at the last moment.  It is the result of a life of spiritual discipline that is rooted in scripture, shaped in prayer, celebrated in worship, and practiced through self-giving service.

Palm Sunday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the day when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison because of his courageous faithfulness in calling the church to oppose Hitler.  As he was led from his cell, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end.  For me, the beginning of life.”

Shortly after my mother’s death, I listened to “Gabriel’s Oboe”, Ennio Morricone’s extravagantly beautiful theme music for the movie, “The Mission.”  I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the music captured the way she left this life, walked through the darkness of death, and entered into the new life of the resurrection. I want to live so that I will die that way, too.

The headline said that after the death of the smartphone, “things are going to get really crazy.”  But for people who have lived a life of faith, after death, things are going to get really amazing!

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.  If Cohen, Ives and Morricone are too much for you, my friend and former musical colleague, Penny Walsh, recently posted this beautiful arrangement of “Abide with Me” which says the same thing in a more traditional way.

Learning to Say, “I’m Sorry”

Playing “Sorry!” 

Luke, our six-year-old grandson, loves to play “Sorry!”  He and his grandmother spent an afternoon recently teaching Mattie, our three-year-old granddaughter, how to play the game. IMG_0230

The goal is to be the first player to get all four of your pawns from “Start” to “Home” as directed by drawing cards.  The twist in the game is when one player draws a “Sorry!” card, which allows that player to trade places or send another player back to “Start.”  Luke says, “Sorry!”, but the grin on his face gives away the truth that he isn’t really sorry at all!

Of course, it’s just a game.  But one of the most important life lessons any of us can learn is not how to play the game, but to know how and when to say, “I’m sorry!” and really mean it.  Any growth toward spiritual, emotional, and relational health involves learning how to take responsibility for our actions, to acknowledge our mistakes and failures, to receive forgiveness, and to change our behavior in the future.  The bible calls it “repentance,” which means acknowledging when we have gone the wrong way and turning in a new direction.

The Only Way to Happiness 

The painful reality is that living with a lie runs against the grain of a healthy, joyful life.  Defending a lie and refusing to acknowledge when we have been wrong wears us out. Repentance — saying “I’m sorry” — is the only way to health, healing and happiness.

David, the King who had everything, learned the hard way to acknowledge his sin and receive forgiveness in the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba and his attempt at a classic “cover up.”  (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15)

The 32nd Psalm describes the lesson David learned.

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!
The one the Lord doesn’t consider guilty—
in whose spirit there is no dishonesty—
that one is truly happy!

When I kept quiet, my bones wore out…
My energy was sapped as if in a summer drought.
So I admitted my sin to you;
I didn’t conceal my guilt.
“I’ll confess my sins to the Lord, ” is what I said.
Then you removed the guilt of my sin.

By confessing his guilt and receiving forgiveness, the psalmist found genuine happiness and instructs us:

 Don’t be like some senseless horse or mule,
whose movement must be controlled
with a bit and a bridle…

The pain of the wicked is severe,
but faithful love surrounds the one who trusts the Lord.
You who are righteous, rejoice in the Lord and be glad!
All you whose hearts are right, sing out in joy!

Never Having to Say You’re Sorry 

Those of us of a certain age remember the movie, “Love Story” with it’s sappy, tear-jerking line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Biblically and psychologically, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Real love, life-giving, joy-bringing love, always means saying we are sorry for the ways our finite words, actions and attitudes contradict or fall short of the infinite love of God revealed in Jesus.  Particularly during Lent, we are reminded that the sins that nailed Jesus to the cross are the same sins that infect our lives.  Jesus is praying for us when he cries, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Tragically, we are seeing the biblical truth acted out in the inability of our President to ever acknowledge that he might be wrong. He evidently never learned to say, “I’m sorry.”

One of the most revealing moments in the Trump campaign was when he said that he doesn’t ask for forgiveness.  Like the character in a Shakespearean drama, we’ve watched him tweet a lie and then continue defending the lie, right down to today’s interview in Time magazine.  Proving the truth of the Psalmist’s words, the President appears to be a miserably unhappy man, in spite of everything he has achieved.

The Way of Repentance 

I pray that the President might learn the way of repentance that leads to joy. But the challenge during Lent is to look deeply into our own lives, to acknowledge our own sin, to seek forgiveness, and to experience the love of God that leads to joy.

An old country proverb says, “A lie may carry you far, but it will never carry you home.”  Maybe they learned that lesson playing, “Sorry!”

Grace and peace,

Jim

Thoughts From the Jury Box

In the Jury Box 

I’ve been called for jury duty before, but this was the first time I was chosen to serve. It always reminded me of Jesus saying, “Many are called but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:14)  I was reeking with patriotism when I took my place in the jury box.

The experience reminded me of the critical importance of our system of justice and of how dangerous it is for our President to disparage or attempt to discredit it.  With its imperfections, it’s still our best hope for living toward the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” I’ve often said that I don’t tell mother-in-law jokes because I had such a great one and I don’t tell attorney jokes because I know so many good ones.  The only people I can make fun of are preachers!

9508d83fc6c0b38001df4794eda8df09The Judge was relentless in reminding the jury that the only thing we could consider was the evidence as presented in the trial in light of the specific laws that applied to the case.  It meant that if I was to fulfill my duty, I had to lay aside some of my pastoral instincts and deal only with the evidence and the law.

The Quality of Mercy 

Driving to and from the Courthouse, however, I remembered Shakespeare’s lines about mercy and justice in “The Merchant of Venice.”  You can hear Laura Carmichael (Edith on “Downton Abby”) recite Portia’s speech here.  I encourage you to take time to read and reflect on Portia’s words.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Shakespeare knew the Bible.  He had read Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 3:4-5)  

Portia’s speech was Shakespeare’s application of the epistle of James:

“Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”  (James 2:13)

The play demonstrated what Jesus was talking about when he said:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

Lent is a perfect time to remember that justice is getting what we deserve; mercy is receiving what we need. The mercy we receive is in equal measure to the mercy we give.

I’m grateful for blindfolded Lady Justice holding the scales in her hand, but I’m even more grateful for the clear-eyed gaze of God’s love and grace that sees the justice I deserve, but offers me the undesired mercy I so desperately need.  The hymn writer got it right who wrote:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

During this Lenten season, may we pray for mercy, and may we render deeds of mercy equal to the mercy we receive.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Behavior or Belief?

Behavior or Belief?

So, which is more important?  What we believe?  Or how we behave?

It’s a lot like breathing.  Which is more important? Exhaling or inhaling?  As a person who lives with asthma, I can tell you that it all depends on which one you did last!

Belief and behavior both matter.  What we believe shapes how we behave and how we behave demonstrates what we believe.  For a healthy life, they need to be in sync with each other.  Even our bodies rebel when what we say we believe and how we behave are not consistent. They both matter.

And yet…

My Problem with Jesus 

Over the past few weeks, the lectionary gospel readings have focused on Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ words we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28).  Most people who say they believe in Christ would agree that these passages are the essential core of what Jesus taught.

The problem is that Jesus has almost nothing to say about what we believe. He focuses entirely on the peculiar way he expects his followers to behave. It’s the same when you turn to Jesus’ parables.  Most of them are not about what we affirm as the content of our faith, but what we do and how we live.  His parables of the final judgement are painfully clear that what will matter is not what we say we have believed, but the way we have behaved.  (Matthew 25:1-46)

John’s gospel is the only gospel that puts a major emphasis on belief, but even it concludes with Jesus saying, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35).  Paul’s epistles are the bedrock of what Christians believe, but every letter points to the way what we believe shapes the way we behave.

That’s not to say that belief is unimportant.  If it were, I wasted a lot of time and energy across the past four decades attempting to help folks get clear about what they believe and why they believe it. What is unimportant is belief that doesn’t transform our behavior.  The goal of Christian discipleship is not making sure that we get everything right in our heads, but that our hearts and lives are being shaped into the likeness of Jesus.

The Problem for Us 

The problem for “so-called” Christians is that the world watches how we behave more closely that it listens to what we believe.  Particularly the so-called “Gen-Xers” and “Millennials” can smell a hypocrite a mile away.

They may not understand all the complexities of Christian theology, but they know when people who say they believe in Christ behave in ways that are inconsistent with what Jesus teaches;
when we manipulate the truth with self-serving exaggerations;
when we accept economic policies that benefit the rich by denying the needs of the poor;
when we vote for candidates whose life styles are a contradiction of the most basic standards of truth or personal morality;
when we close our eyes to the subtle and persistent sins of racism, xenophobia, sexism and jingoistic nationalism;
when we are quick to resort to violence and slow to walk in Jesus’ way of peacemaking;
when we love to pray on street corners but fail to practice the disciplines of spiritual formation;
when anger and old-fashioned meanness contradict the way of mercy and forgiveness;
when we settle for our lives the way they are without stretching toward what they can become;
when we say we believe the creed but behave in ways that don’t look like Jesus.

In times like these, Jesus words come with painful and penetrating clarity:  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

Walk The Narrow Way 

David Brooks is just about the closest thing we have to a biblical prophet.  I plan to reread his powerful book, The Road to Character during Lent and hope you will, too.  In his recent sermon in the National Cathedral he reminds us that the teachers who made the biggest difference in our lives were not the ones who gave us an A+ because we walked in the door, but the ones who “started with a C- and loved us toward an A.”

That’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.  That’s what he meant when he said, “The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  He calls us to a way of discipleship that leads us toward the complete integration of our behavior with our belief. He challenges us to face our failures and continue to grow toward what Wesley called “Christian perfection,” the completion of God’s work of love in our human lives.

The Need for Ashes 

All of which is why we need to get our ashes in church next Wednesday.  (Pardon the corny play on words!)  ashwThe dirty smudge on our foreheads is the tangible reminder that we are all dust.  We are all mortal.  We are all imperfect people.  But they are also the sign of the grace that meets us wherever we are and loves us too much to leave us there.  Jesus accepts us with all our contradictions between what we believe and the way we behave and draws us toward the wholeness (holiness) of a life that is fully integrated with his will.

We follow the Teacher who meets us at a C- and loves us toward an A.

Grace and peace,

Jim

“The Present Crisis”

On Flunking Retirement

My wife says I flunked retirement.  I’d say that I get to do the things I want to do but don’t do things I have to do.  So, what have I been up to?

This is my tenth year as one of the facilitators for the Institute of Preaching and I’m helping some young pastors who are on their way to ordination.  In January I was one of the speakers on the EO Celebration Cruise through the Caribbean.  I preach and teach in churches and Conferences when the opportunities come along and I’ve been writing other things that have kept me from writing on this blog.

We just finished Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes Our World, the 2018 Lenten study from The Upper Room.  We’re in the final stages of development of Make A Difference: Follow Your Path…Find Your Place to Serve.  It follows up on A Disciple’s Path and A Disciple’s Heart by helping people live into the second part of our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world and will be released in the fall.

I’d say I have enough work to keep me out of trouble, but enough freedom to visit the grandkids in Orlando and Charleston, enjoy family travel and keep in touch with friends.  And, of course, Gator football season is not too far away!

With all of that, the dark shadow hanging over everything else right now is the continuing chaos surrounding the Trump administration.

“The Present Crisis” 

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was an American poet, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Great Britain and an ardent abolitionist.  In 1845 he wrote a poem entitled “The Present Crisis,” parts of which became the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” You can listen to it here.  Though it is no longer in our hymnal, the words stirred a teenage idealism in me that I’ve never been able to live up to or escape. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted the last four lines in his sermons.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Those words have been haunting me as we’ve lived into the early weeks of the Trump administration.

I first wrote about Trump two years ago when I raised my concern that “Donald Trump is appealing to ‘the worst angels of our nature’ by touching the chords of fear, racism, xenophobia, greed, and arrogant nationalism.” I’ve also described my concern about his sexual immorality, his total disregard for truth and his distain for the freedom of the press that is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.  All of those are fundamental contradictions of the biblical, social and spiritual values that have shaped my life.

But there is a deeper crisis lurking in the shadows of this Administration.

Mr. Goebbels Comes to Washington 

In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he appointed Joseph Goebbels as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. His job was to control the content of the German media in order to silence all opposition to Hitler’s agenda.

I could not help but think of Goebbels when I watched Presidential advisor, Stephen Miller, on the Sunday news shows last week.  His words were disturbing enough, but it was the cold, unflinching glare in his eyes that sent chills down my spine.  You can watch the collection of them here. This guy really means what he is saying. Here are some key lines.

“To say that we are in control would be a substantial understatement.”

“It is a fact and you will not deny it, that there are massive numbers of non-citizens in this country, who are registered to vote.” (A claim for which there is absolutely no factual evidence.)

“The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” (So much for separation of powers and Five Freedoms of the First Amendment.)

Equally disturbing was the President’s tweet the next morning:  “Congratulations Stephen Miller — on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”

The realities of our present time have taken me back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against the rise of Nazism from a profoundly spiritual, biblical and theological perspective.  I pray that we are not headed in the same direction but am reminded that every generation of Christian disciples is called to live into the clarity of conviction and commitment that guided him.

New occasions do, in fact, teach new duties.  May the Spirit of God teach us the new duties that the present crisis imposes on faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

“Inauguration Panic”

The First Rule 

Our 3-year old granddaughter is a lot like most of us.  When things are running smoothly, she is an absolute delight, a first rate joy-bringer.  But when things don’t work out the way she expected, when the milk gets spilled or a knee gets scraped, she can go slightly bonkers.  So, her parents are teaching her, “The first rule is ‘Don’t panic.’  We can fix this.  Things will be okay.”

During Advent, Mattie and her 1-year-old sister were learning the Christmas story. When her mother asked, “Mattie, what did the angel tell the shepherds?” Mattie replied, “Don’t panic!”  She got the message the angels proclaimed!

Inauguration Panic 

I’m trying not to panic over what lies ahead in the Trump administration; doing my best to look for signs for optimism; hoping against any rational reason for hope that something good will come from this peculiar election.  But just about the time I see a glimmer of hope, the President-elect sends another childish, viscerally-motivated, self-aggrandizing, truth-twisting Tweet…as if the complex issues we face at home and abroad could be understood or solved with 140 characters!

Without panic, here are two things that disturb me about what we have seen across the decades of Trump’s media-saturated behavior.

The “Post-Truth” President 

The Oxford English Dictionary picked post-truth as the 2016 “word of the year.”  They defined it as:

 “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influenctial in shaping public opinion than appeal to emotion and personal belief.”

An editorial in The Christian Century said we have moved into “a world in which widely available facts seem unable to dent the appearance of attractive falsehoods.”  A friend in the Air Force wrote, “The truth is declared a lie, lies are declared truth, and facts don’t matter. Lord, have mercy on our nation.” 

The same editorial said:

Truth telling involves having the humility to be corrected…There has to be a shared reality beyond self-interest for the concept of telling the truth to gain traction; otherwise speech is mere self-assertion.”  

The President-elect has consistently demonstrated an astonishing lack of anything akin to “humility to be corrected” along with an equally consistent willingness to lie, even when it means contradicting things we all heard or watched him say.

  • He refuses to accept facts confirmed by our Intelligence agencies.
  • He attacks responsible journalists who uncover unpleasant facts about his behavior.
  • He and members of his future Cabinet deny scientific facts about global warming.
  • His primary spokesperson said we should not listen to his words but to his heart…a suggestion as absurd as it is disturbing.  Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts…adultery, sexual immorality…false testimony, slander.”(Matthew 15:19)

Jesus promised, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) One of the most patriotic things people of faith can do will be to sort out objective facts from politically-adventageous fiction and to attempt to hold our post-truth President accountable to it.

“A Humorless as a Chicken” 

John Steinbeck described one of his characters in East of Eden as being “as humorless as a chicken.”  Have we ever seen the President-elect laugh? He appears to be the most joyless person on the national scene. It’s almost painful to watch him smile. He is utterly incapable of laughing at himself. By contrast, just about every President in my lifetime has had a winning smile and a memorable laugh.

That may seem like a small thing until you remember that during the most difficult days of his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln said that his sense of humor helped him maintain his sanity. The psalmist declared, “The one who rules in heaven laughs.”  And what makes God laugh?  God laughs at the arrogance of “the earth’s rulers” who “scheme together against the Lord.” (Psalm 2:1-4)

G. K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. Satan fell by force of gravity.”  A biblical scholar writing about the humor in the Old Testament said:

“We need to be able to laugh at ourselves…Maybe we wouldn’t be so destructive if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously…Laughing at kings is a way to not give the powerful the power they so pompously claim.”

I’m appalled by Trump’s vulgarity, greed and sexual immorality. (Whatever happened to “family values”?)  I’m disturbed by the way he pandered to some of the worst elements of racism and bigotry in the underbelly of our culture, his all too apparent narcissism and his vindictive attacks on anyone who dares to criticize him.  I fear for his distain for freedom of the press.  But his careless disregard for truth and his mean-spirited narcissism may be the things that frighten me most about what lies ahead.

But the first rule is, “Don’t panic.”  That’s not because there aren’t good reasons to be afraid, but because our Constitution is still in tact, because some of his Cabinet nominees have said they won’t hesitate to stand up against him and because our faith is deeper and stronger than anything that happens in our politics.  Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted James Russell Lowell’s powerful words:

Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And beyond the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows,
Keeping watch above his own.

Our ultimate trust is in the God who consistently says, “Do not be afraid.”  Or, as Mattie puts it, “Don’t panic!”

Grace and peace,

Jim

Singing “Hallelujah”

Remembering Mom 

In four months, my mother would have turned 96.  That’s why I remembered Lucinda Matlock when she died on December 29.  Lucinda is one of the characters who come back from the grave in Edgar Lee Masters’ play, “Spoon  River Anthology.” She says:

At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,  
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

img_0002Mom left us the way a polite woman leaves a party. With help from Hospice she left us quietly, without making a fuss and at peace. She died the way she lived, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection and eternal life.”  

Singing “Hallelujah” 

One of my favorite memories of Mom comes from Easter, 2012.  Here’s the way I told the story in  “A Disciple’s Heart”.  

Halfway back in the congregation, my nine-year-old granddaughter tugged on my wife’s arm and said, “Gamma, look at Gampa’s face!” Then she made a shocked expression to mirror what she saw on my own.

We were singing the final hymn in the traditional Easter service, during which anyone who wants to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus is invited to come to the chancel, pick up a score and join the choir. The look on my face was an involuntary response when I saw my 91-year-old mother step out of the pew and start down the aisle leaning on her cane every step of the way. It reflected my concern about how she would make it up the steps into the chancel. We’re careful about getting her up just the one step into our front door. Fortunately, my son-in-law got his arm around her and supported her all the way. 

I grew up hearing my mother singing hymns at bedtime and in the kitchen, singing solos for weddings and funerals, and singing in the choir every Sunday morning. It’s no surprise to me that she loves Handel’s setting of the book of Revelation’s hymn of praise to the risen Christ. The choir sang it every Easter when we were growing up. She probably knows it by heart. She asked the organist to play it as we processed out of the Sanctuary at my father’s funeral.  

She doesn’t sing as much as she used to. Time and asthma inhalers have taken a toll on her voice. But this was Easter Sunday morning, and she wanted to get in on the singing. After the service she said she hoped I wasn’t embarrassed. I told her I wasn’t embarrassed, just concerned. She said, “Well, I don’t know if I’ll get to sing it again, so I wanted to do it today.”  

She will, of course, sing it again someday, in fuller voice and renewed strength when she joins the heavenly choirs. That is, after all, the promise of Easter. But Mom got it right. You shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to sing “Hallelujah” when you can, particularly when your great-grandchildren are watching. I felt like saying, “Go for it, Mom!”

Go for it, Mom!

And so the time as come.  We dare to believe that she is singing with the choirs that sing praise to God in Revelation.  We give thanks she sang when she could, and we’d like to join the singing. 

Grace and peace, 

Jim 

 

 

 

The Mystery in the Mess

The Great Mystery 

One of the most beautiful chants in the Christmas mass is “O Magnum Mysterium,” 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!

In the hustle and bustle leading toward Christmas, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by taking a quiet moment to watch the choir of King’s College, Cambridge,sing it here. rubens-big

Each Advent as I move closer to Christmas Eve, I am more convinced that Anglican Bishop, Geoffrey Rowell, got it right when he described the Christian faith as “a revelation and a mystery–a revelation to be received and a mystery to be lived out.”  He went on to say that “notes of awe, wonder, reverence and reserve” are “essential characteristics of Christian believing.”  

There is a time and a place for intellectual analysis, skeptical debate and academic research around the doctrine of the incarnation, but Christmas Eve is not the time and the manger is not the place.  Here, the only appropriate response is awe, wonder, reverence and humility as we celebrate the mystery of the Word becoming flesh among us.

Charles Wesley caught the mystery in one of his little-known Christmas carols:

Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.

He deigns in flesh t’appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

Mystery in the Mess

And here’s the thing: Whatever else the incarnation means, it means that the great mystery of God’s love in Christ is alive among us in the complex, conflicted, confusing mess of our ordinary lives and our broken world. The great mystery is not an esoteric flight from reality, but a present experience in our very real world.  The incarnation is not just a doctrine to be believed, but “a mystery to be lived out” in the hustle and bustle, the joy and pain, the power and the politics, the hope and despair of our lives each day.

In fact, followers of Christ are called to be the continuing agents of God’s reconciling love and grace, not just on Christmas Eve, but on the other 364 days of the year.

Paul combined God’s mysterious work of reconciliation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with our work of reconciliation in the world when he wrote:

All this is God’s doing, for he has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ; and he has made us agents of the reconciliation. God was in Christ personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting their sins against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. (II Corinthians 5:18-19)

When it comes down to it, the great mystery is not only that God came among us in Jesus, but that God intends to go into the world in the lives of people like every one of us.  Now, that’s a great mystery!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Advent In “Trump World”

An Advent Attention Grabber

I’ll confess that the title is, in part, an attention grabber.  My news producer daughter would call it a “teaser.” Since you’re reading this, it evidently worked! But there’s also  truth in it.

With the election Donald Trump, we have entered into a new political world. There’s nothing “normal” about this President-elect. In many ways, we are now in uncharted territory; a new world in which Trump will influence the shape of our life together in disruptive and potentially damaging ways.

We are also in Advent. On the church’s calendar, Christmas isn’t here yet. Advent is the season of waiting for something that is yet to come; the time of longing for something that cannot be purchased online or at the mall; the weeks of hoping for a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.  People of biblical faith see the birth of Jesus in the context of what God has done in the past, is doing in the present and will accomplish in the future. We live in hope. (Romans 8:19-25)

Living the Vision

I’m just back from Columbus, Ohio, where I spoke on biblical hope to the clergy of the West Ohio Conference. The messages were grounded in Isaiah’s visions of God’s intention for this world which are among the lectionary readings for Advent:  Isaiah 2:1-5Isaiah 11:1-10Isaiah 35:1-10. (Please take a moment to read them.) swanson_peaceable_kingdom_7

I pointed out that these visions:

  • were given to Isaiah in desperate times when everything in the social and political world was stacked against their fulfillment;
  • are not esoteric, out-of-this-world visions but are entirely this-world visions of how God intends this world to be and will, in fact, become;
  • are consistent with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven; and
  •  invite faithful people to participate now in their coming.

The hope we affirm in Advent is the assurance that one day God’s saving, redeeming purpose which was revealed in the words, will and way of Jesus will be accomplished in this creation and we can get in on God’s action as we live and act in ways that are consistent with God’s vision.

Advent Hope In “Trump World” 

So, what does it mean to be faithful to God’s purpose in the new world into which our recent election is taking us?  A time in which the realities of the world around us seem to be stacked against the prophetic vision of peace,harmony, justice for the poor, and the healing of racial and social divisions.

Some people woke up on November 9 ready to celebrate that the new day had come. I’ve seen people on Facebook declare that God intervened and elected Donald Trump. (God might be surprised at that.)  Others are still wrestling with disappointment, despair and anxiety. Because both of those responses are very much alive in most United Methodist or mainline congregations, I reminded the pastors of things things that are true to our hope in every time and every culture.

  •  Wherever you are on the continuum between celebration and despair, let me remind you that God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God does not elect the President; the people do.
  • Let me remind you that this nation, as much as we love it, has never been and never will be the Kingdom of God on earth. Like every other nation and culture, our nation stands under both the mercy and the judgement of God. To whom much is given, much is required.
  • Let me remind you that according to the New Testament, our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Our ultimately loyalty is not to the flag, but to the cross.
  • Let me remind you that no political party exists in order to be a tangible, flesh and blood, real world expression of the Kingdom of God on earth. That’s the job of the Church.  That’s the task to which God calls us!
  • Let me remind you that Satan’s most relentless temptation is for the church to align itself with political power.  Jesus rejected that temptation in the wilderness. Whenever the church becomes aligned with any political party or power, the gospel always gets lost in the bargain.
  • Let me remind you that our task, as partners with God in the coming of the Kingdom, is to hold our nation and our lives accountable to the vision of the prophets and the values of the Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ.  When our nation’s polices or our leaders’ behaviors align with the values of the Kingdom, we give thanks. But when our nation’s policies or our leaders’ behaviors are not consistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, it is our task to  call them to account and pray for God’s mercy.
  • Let me remind you, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Victory is assured! Because the death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ declare forever that light has overcome darkness, that life has overcome death, that joy and laughter and peace and compassion and justice and caring and sharing, all and more have overcome their counterparts.”

If we believe that one day the kingdoms of this earth really will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ;

If we believe that one day swords will in fact be turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and nations shall learn war no more;

If we believe that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord;

If we believe that one day the hungry will be fed, the broken healed, the poor raised up and the powerful brought low;

If we believe that God has invited each us to participate in the coming of that vision, then we have a word of hope that can hold us when everything seems to be coming apart around us.

That’s biblical hope. That’s the stronghold of hope that can hold us prisoner, the kind of hope that can sustain us when everything is stacked against it. It’s the hope of something that is yet to come; the commitment to a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.

The prayer of Advent is always, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

What Will We Tell the Children?

Stunned and Searching 

By habit and profession, it’s my personal pattern to attempt to put words around things that are sometimes bigger than words can carry. So, here I go again, reflecting on the stunning surprise of Donald Trump being elected President of the United States. 

The election doesn’t change any of the concerns about Trump that I’ve written about in the past year, but it puts them in a different perspective.
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With the picture of my granddaughters going to the polls with their mother in mind, I’ve settled in on the question:What Do We Tell Our Children?

That’s a particularly challenging question because so much about the past behavior of our next President has been a bold-faced contradiction of the most basic values by which we try to raise our children. So, here’s my random attempt to answer that question. 

 

It’s great to live in America. 

We’ve been through the most divisive, mean-spirited, relentlessly fact-free and often vulgar political campaign in any of our lifetimes. But now that the votes have been counted, we move into another peaceful transition of power. Hillary Clinton’s concession speech represented something very good about being a citizen of this nation. 

Sometimes the bullies win.            

Our daughter, Deborah, who experienced her share of bullying in school, said it feels like the playground bully was elected Homecoming King. It’s a hard fact of life, but we can’t hide it from our children. Just because we try to be decent people who do our best to treat others the way we would like to be treated doesn’t mean that we will get chosen for the Homecoming court. The good guys don’t always win…at least not in the short run.

Sometimes people rise to the level of the task to which they have been called.  

Visiting Monticello and looking out across the Washington Mall this summer was a visual reminder of the ideals that gave birth to our nation and that continue to call us toward “a more perfect union.” We can hope and pray that as Mr. Trump prepares to take the oath of office he may feel called to rise above the vulgar, narcissistic, xenophobic, racist emotions that he unleashed during the campaign. If he lives into the words and spirit of his acceptance speech, it may be a sign of hope.

The arch of moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Dr. King often quoted that line as a way of giving hope to people during the civil rights movement. Our children need to know that the work of freedom and justice is never fully accomplished; we work toward a goal that is always beyond what we have achieved. In the words of Ted Kennedy: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Remember who you are. 

The thing that defines our identity is not that whether we are Republican or Democrat, win or lose, but that we are followers of Jesus Christ. That changes everything. Our primary citizenship is not in the USA, but in the Kingdom of God. (Philippians 3:20)  We are called to live by values that are sometimes consistent with our national values but are never superseded by our national interests.

I can’t help but pass along this message from my friend, Neil Alexander, who just retired as the President of the United Methodist Publishing House.

Welcome sorrow and defeat for all they can teach us about the depths of human experience and our reliance on the mercies of God and our need for each other.

Stand, sit or lay with all who suffer because in doing so we share a deep and wretched pain that awakens our souls and imaginations – and places us at the center of God’s graceful work in the world.

Do all of that and then by God get up, shake the dust from your shoes and start doing the things that make for genuine peace and merciful justice.

We lost last night. Big time.

What will we learn and snatch from the ashes of defeat? How will we awaken to the factors and forces that expressed their will with such ferociousness yesterday?  How will we increase our empathy for the aspirations and fears that made themselves heard while we stood by as if dumb and obtuse?

Let’s be alert and vulnerable, but not wallow. We will learn much from this. We will adapt and regroup. We will grow wiser and even more determined.

Trusting God’s promise we will not abandon hope. Instead we will boldly choose to live into hope by faith in things not seen.

We will not deny or hide our despair. But as we embrace it we’ll simultaneously turn on a dime and go to work.

We will not retreat or fade away. We will step up. We will choose life.

Grace and peace,

Jim