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

 

 

 

 

 

Words from Washington: The Glory and the Dream

This is the second installment of reflections that grew out of our visit to Philadelphia and a week in Washington. IMG_0477.jpgWhile the first installment  was a hope-filled Psalm of praise, this one is more like a Psalm of lament.

Where Is The Glory and The Dream?

I’m often surprised by the way the lectionary-assigned texts speak to an immediate situation. This week Psalm 105 calls the covenant people to praise by reminding them of God’s “wondrous works” in their nation’s past.

Standing in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed and looking out across the Mall at the Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson Memorials were more than enough reasons to be inspired and grateful for the intellectual depth, visionary spirit and moral character of the leaders who gave birth to our nation.

Experiencing the new National Museum of African American History and Culture was a powerful witness to the unfinished task of fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

Walking past the White House was a reminder of the long line of leaders who have inhabited it. Whether we agreed or disagreed with their policies, most of them maintained the dignity of the office.

By contrast, it is excruciatingly painful to watch the continuing degradation of the Presidency by the sheer vulgarity, incessant dishonesty, arrogant bullying, and childish meanness of the current occupant of the White House. The great danger is that we will become numb to the way this behavior is demeaning our life together and undermining our nation’s standing in the world.

The contrast between our past and our present reminded me of a line from Wordsworth that became the title of William Manchester’s narrative history of our nation: “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

A Prayer for Leaders 

The Old Testament reading this week is Solomon’s soul-stretching prayer when he became King of Israel.

“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in…Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon’s prayer points to two elements of character that are absolutely necessary for effective leadership.

First is Solomon’s humility. He begins by acknowledging that the task to which he has been called is beyond his ability to fulfill. He knows that there are things he doesn’t know. He would never say, “I alone can fix it.”

Second, Solomon prays for wisdom to know the difference between good and evil. He prays for a strong internal rudder to guide his decisions for the welfare of his people; what our founders called “the common good.”  It’s what Charles Wesley was describing when he prayed:

I want a principle within
Of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wand’ring of my will,
And quench the kindling fire.

Quick as the apple of an eye,
O God, my conscience make;
Awake my soul when sin is nigh,
And keep it still awake.

Sadly, the consistent behavior of our current President demonstrates a disturbing lack of “principle within” that would define the boundary between truth and falsehood and a self-absorbed inability to acknowledge any weakness, failure, or need for wisdom beyond his own.

When Silence Equal Assent  

David Brooks, who is just about the closest thing we have to a contemporary biblical prophet, wrote this week: .

“Do you ever get the feeling we’re all going to be judged for this moment? Historians, our grandkids and we ourselves will look and ask: What did you do as the Trump/Scaramucci/Bannon administration dropped a nuclear bomb on the basic standards of decency in public life? What did you do as the American Congress ceased to function? What positions did you take as America teetered toward national decline?… Silence equals assent.”

I offer this blog, not as a political statement, but as a moral witness because I can no longer understand how faithful, bible-believing followers of Christ can continue to make excuses for the moral and ethical deficiency in our President and of those who enable him.  I also offer it as the starting point of my consistent prayer for my nation and for all of its leaders.

IMG_0478

I pray that we will reclaim the “glory and the dream” of our founders and that with Solomon, we will discover the gifts of humility and wisdom that will lead us through this time to a better day.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Words from Washington: Waiting Resurrection

Through the generosity of some close friends, we’ve spent the past week in a Washington, DC, condo that looks out across the Tidal Basin and directly down the Mall with a perfect view of the Lincoln and Washington Memorials all the way to the Capital.  As a result, this will be the first of two blogs on different themes from our nation’s capital.

On the Way to the Grave

One of my favorite places in Washington is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, deep beneath the nave of the National Cathedral.  It is formed by the massive piers that support the Gloria in Excelsis Tower that rises 300 feet above the highest point of land in the District of Columbia. Twelve descending steps create the feeling of descending into the tomb while sensing the full weight and glory of the tower above.91824857.yynO45Mq.ChapelofSt.JosephofArimathea

Behind the altar, a mural by Jan Henrik De Rosen depicts Joseph leading the procession to the tomb. All the heads are shrouded or bowed except for one young man who helps carry the body and looks directly toward the congregation. Looking into his eyes, I often listen for what he is saying to or asking of us.

We made that same pilgrimage last weekend when we carried my mother’s ashes to the hillside cemetery in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where she lived most of her life and where many of the people she loved are buried. In an old tradition that isn’t practiced much any more, each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren added their shovel of dirt to her grave.

IMG_1753

We then gathered with our extended family in the church where my brothers and I were baptized, confirmed, and from which I was sent into ministry.

Sooner or later, we all make that same journey. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, we carry the remains of our loved ones to the grave. But knowing the rest of the story, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope.”  (I Thessalonians 4:13)

That truth was affirmed when I received a sympathy card from two faithful friends who are the same age as my mother. They ended their message with the words, “We know there’s more.”

Before he went to prison for his resistance to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his students to report the death of three friends. “Now they sleep with all the brothers who have gone before them, awaiting the great Easter Day of Resurrection. We see the cross, and we believe in the resurrection; we see death, and we believe in eternal life; we trace sorrow and separation, but we believe in an eternal joy and community.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 220)

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we face the stony silence of Joseph’s tomb in hope. We carry our loved ones the way we will one day be carried to the grave knowing that there’s more!

The Book of Common Prayer includes this prayer for Holy Saturday:

O God: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 283)

Awaiting the resurrection with hope,

Jim

P.S.  Full disclosure, this blog is based on the Holy Saturday devotion in
Easter Earthquake, next year’s Lenten study for The Upper Room.  41HPb-i2sIL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

 

It’s Not About Mika & Joe

The Power a Free Press 

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was a Presbyterian minister in St. Louis, Missouri, who worked as an editor at the St, Louis Observer where he wrote editorials opposing slavery.

After anti-abolitionists destroyed his press for the third time, Lovejoy moved across the river to Alton, Illinois, and started another abolitionist paper.  In 1837, a pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse where he had set up his fourth printing press. Lovejoy was shot and died on the spot.

I tell Lovejoy’s story as a reminder of the importance of freedom of the press established by the First Amendment and as a witness to the forces that are always at work to undermine or destroy it.

It’s Not About Mika & Joe 

I also tell that story to say that there is more at stake in the President’s Twitter tirade against “Morning Joe” and his continuing attacks on the “media” than morning headlines or cheering crowds.

Anyone who was surprised by Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough’s comments about the President simply hasn’t been paying attention.  They are who they are — cable news commentators who join a long line of journalists, cartoonists, and editors who have debated, criticized, mocked, or pointed to the duplicity of our leaders throughout our history.  A free press is not about whether we agree or disagree, but about the freedom to speak, write, debate, and argue with and about our leaders.

Anyone who was surprised by Donald Trump’s visceral, vulgar, sexist attack on Mika hasn’t been paying attention either.  This is who he is.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current myth-spinner in the White House Press Room, told the truth when she said that the American people “knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”  (She lied when she said the President had never in “any form or fashion” encouraged violence.  Just watch the campaign rally tapes.)  The President is what he has consistently demonstrated himself to be: thin-skinned, impulsive, mean-spirited, and perhaps sleep-deprived.  (I’ve had crazy thoughts at 3:00 AM, too, but I try go back to sleep!)

But Donald Trump is the President of the United States and that makes all the difference.  There is a “double standard.”  We need our President to rise above either the praise or the critique of TV commentators.  In fact, these continual attacks on the press are undermining the freedoms we celebrate on the 4th of July.

“A Nation Conceived in Liberty…” 

As I’ve reflected on the meaning of this day, I’ve realized that it is my respect for the values and vision enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill 19511086_10212095438212834_2575473102798889724_nof Rights, and the Gettysburg Address that inspires my patriotism and causes my concern.

I respect the Presidency too highly to respect a President who drags the office into the fake world of professional wrestling.

I respect the flag “and the republic for which it stands” too highly to be passive when our President diminishes respect for our nation around the world.

I respect the Christian faith too highly to allow it be to coopted by a leader whose behavior is a consistent contradiction of everything the New Testament says about what it looks like to be a follower of Christ.

I respect freedom of religion (all religions) too highly to allow the church to be wedded to any political party.  (When the church and political power go to bed together, the church becomes an abused spouse.)

I respect those who have given their lives in the service of their country too highly to allow their sacrifice to be tarnished by crass nationalism that masquerades as patriotism.

It’s About Us! 

In the end, “the present crisis” (to borrow James Russel Lowell’s phrase) is not about Mika and Joe, and it’s not entirely about the President.  It’s about us — about who we are.  It’s about how we choose to live into the yet-to-be-fulfilled vision of “liberty and justice for all.” It’s about how we practice the freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights. It’s about how we commit ourselves “to form a more perfect union.”  It’s about the way we choose to treat the people who disagree with us.  For those who claim to be Christian, it’s about how we shape our behavior into the likeness of Jesus.

After the fireworks are over, may this day remind us of who we are called to be. And  may we “be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that we here highly resolve…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government  of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

Grace and peace,

Jim

P.S.

It’s particularly about us as men.  I’ve had it with people calling on the women in Congress and in the White House to speak out against the President’s vulgar attacks on women.  We men are the ones who bear the responsibility for the way women are treated in this culture.  Particularly white men like me who have unintentionally benefited from the coincidence that we were born white and male in a culture that historically has been infected with white prejudice to any person of any color or ethnic minority and which continues to been infected by an inbred bias in favor of male leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planting Trees Under Which We Won’t Sit

I Must Be Getting Older!

I thought I’d be a lot older by the time I got to this age. I have a hard time believing that pastors who are younger than my daughters look at me the way we looked at the “old guys” in the Conference when I came in.  Reality hit when I met a young seminary grad at Conference this week. I said, “I knew your father.  He was my District Superintendent.”  He replied, “That was my grandfather.”

I really enjoy hanging out with young clergy.  They energize me and give me great hope for the future.  I’ve also had the privilege of making the journey with some of them.  18951180_10158850413035596_6568699819153713580_nLast week when Jennifer Potter Buff was ordained, she placed her hand on the bible I signed and gave to her when she was in third grade at Hyde Park United Methodist Church where she was surrounded by a congregation that kept the promises they made at her baptism. She is a living witness to the truth that it takes a church to make a minister.

Planting Trees

Watching these young men and women take their place in leadership, I was reminded of words that are attributed to Ernest Campbell, the Senior Minister at The Riverside Church in New York City from 1968-1976.

To be young is to study in schools
we did not build.
To be mature is to build schools
in which we will not study.

To be young is to sit under trees
we did not plant.
To be mature is to plant trees
under which we will not sit.

To be young is to dance to music
we did not write.
To be mature is to write music
to which we will not dance.

To be young is to worship in churches
we did not build.
To be mature is to build churches
in which we will not worship.

It is possible to get old without becoming mature. We can be so focused on our own generation that we fail to plant trees for the next one — funding seminary scholarships, paying taxes for better public schools, mentoring underprivileged students, stepping aside for younger leaders to emerge, and allowing some things that were important to us to become the soil and manure in which new things can grow.

So, with apologies to Robert Browning, “Grow mature with me!  The best is yet to be!”

Grace and peace,

Jim

Warning: Fire Danger Very High Today

Fire Warning!

Growing up on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest one of my childhood heroes was Smokey the Bear. I’d see him on road signs leading into or out of the forest announcing the fire danger for that particular day.images

If we really believe the Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-21), we ought to put a sign like that in front of the church this Sunday.

Luke says that when the Holy Spirit moved into the lives of Jesus’ first disciples it was like fire dancing around the room setting each of their hearts on fire. He was drawing on imagery from the Old Testament that declares, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:24)

British poet, T. S. Eliot, reflected on the Pentecost story while incendiary bombs were falling on London during World War II.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire…

We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

I looked up the word “suspire.” It means to “breathe from below.” It points to things we most deeply long for, aspire to, or set our hearts on. But don’t miss the Smokey the Bear sort of warning in Eliot’s words and the choice he places before us.  It’s the “choice of pyre or pyre…Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Living in Fire-Risk Times 

We are living in a dangerously fire-prone time. It’s as if we, our nation and our world are positioned on pyres of dry wood that are ready to flare up at any moment:

…fires of anger, frustration, resentment;
…pyres of racism, bigotry, and perverted patriotism;
…fires of repression that threaten the very things we value in Bill of Rights – freedom of religion, freedom of the speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government;
…and now even more than a week ago, the fires of an environmental crisis that threatens to incinerate the earth itself.

But Eliot said we get to choose the fire that will consume us.

We can be consumed by the flames of narrow self-interest or we can be on fire with the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

We can set the world ablaze with the fires of jingoistic nationalism or we can gather around the flame of shared values that break down barriers and build bridges of understanding.

We can burn on the pyre of persistent racism or we can be ablaze with the hope and promise of reconciliation.

We can be incinerated in the flames of narcissistic greed or we can glow with the warmth of God’s extravagant generosity.

We can feed the fires of consumption that destroy the environment or we can ignite the energy of a biblical stewardship of creation.

We can add fuel to the fires of polarization that separate us by or we can stoke up the fire of divine love that unites us in one family of God.

We can burn on the pyre of hated or we can be aflame with the fire of Christ-like love.

Ablaze with Love 

Charles Wesley prayed that the same Spirit who came like fire on Pentecost would burn be ablaze in his own heart.

Pure baptismal Fire divine,
All thy heavenly powers exert,
In my deepest darkness shine,
Spread thy warmth throughout my heart;
Come, thou Spirit of burning come,
Comforter through Jesus given;
All my earthly dross consume,
Fill my soul with love from heaven.

Love in me intensely burn,
Love mine inmost essence seize,
All into thy nature turn,
All into thy holiness!
Spark of thy celestial flame,
Then my soul shall upward move,
Trembling on with steady aim,
Seek and join its source above.

Pentecost is the constant reminder that our God is a consuming fire and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we like those first disciples, can be set aflame with the fire of divine love.

So, which pyre will we choose? Which fire will consume us?

Grace and peace,

Jim

Will the Center Hold?

Things Fall Apart 

Perhaps W. B. Yeats got it right.  In the aftermath of the horrendous slaughter of WWI and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, he wrote:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.  (The Second Coming)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In his newly-released history of civil religion (American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present), Philip Gorski says that our problem is that “the chorus of shouting drowns out the quieter voices of the vital center.”  He calls for “a new vital center” that isn’t “a mushy middle that splits the difference between Left and Right.  It is a living tradition that cuts across these divisions…something much older and also more radical.”  

When it comes to our nation, I’d say that both Yeats and Gorski are correct.  But what about the United Methodist Church?

The Vital Center Holds!  

There is a “chorus of shouting” that has been drowning out “the quieter voices of the vital center.”  They picture the UMC on the brink of disaster or division because equally faithful United Methodists hold differing biblically-rooted convictions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy.

But Yeats didn’t stop with a center than can’t hold.  He went on to say:  “Surely some revelation is at hand.”  

I caught a glimpse of that “new vital center” when I gathered in Nashville this week with 48 church leaders from all five Jurisdictions of the church, 27 of whom were under 45 years old.  The spirit of the gathering was as energizing as it was encouraging.

We were drawn together because we share a Spirit-led conviction that there is still a vital center in Methodism that is neither a mushy middle of ecclesiological niceness nor casual compromise of conflicting convictions.

The “vital center” is faithful to scripture, formed by our Wesleyan spiritual and theological tradition, passionate about our mission, energized by disciplines of prayer and utterly dependent on the leading of the Spirit of God.

We believe the genuine center of United Methodism is composed of faithful disciples who are connected at the center of our mission and ministry while honoring our differences around the circumference. In the spirit of John Wesley, we say, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”  

No one was naïve about the depth of our differences or the possibility that our denominational debates may pull us apart. We know that the denominational structures through which we’ve done ministry in the past are inadequate for the future. But we are committed to searching together for the means by which we can bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

This gathering was just the beginning of a witness that will gain clarity as more people “whose hearts are as our hearts” are drawn into the conversation.

A Witness of Hope 

I’m convinced that the hope of the UMC is in its new generation of leaders who are committed to “a living tradition that cuts across these divisions.”  It’s a deeply Wesleyan tradition that is “much older and also more radical” than institutional inertia or denominational politics.

It’s time for the quieter voices at the vibrant center of United Methodism to rise up with a hope-filled, Spirit-energized, world-transforming affirmation of the “vital center” of our life together.  A deeply polarized nation is desperately in need of our witness!

Grace and peace,

Jim