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

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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

Between the Earthquakes: What Was God Doing on Saturday?

There Was A Great Earthquake 

Matthew reports that on the first Easter morning “there was a great earthquake.” It ripped open the tomb and scared the living daylights out of the Romans guards who “shook with fear and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)

Matthais Grunwald (1470-1528) imagined that moment in the Isenheim Altarpiece.  the-resurrection-of-christ-right-wing-of-the-isenheim-altarpiece.jpg!LargeYou can feel the earth vibrate and hear the earthquake rumble. The tomb is broken open. The guards tumble to the ground. The Risen Christ soars out of the grave like the Space Shuttle lifting off from the Florida coast. His smiling face dissolves into the brilliant sun that penetrates the pitch black darkness. He raises his nail-scared hands saying, “Be not afraid! I am going before you!”

A 17th Century mystic wrote:  “The earth which trembled with sorrow at the death of Jesus leaped for joy at his resurrection.” (Cornelius Lapide)

Shaking in the Darkness 

It was the second earthquake in Matthew’s gospel.  On Friday, when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the sky turned black and “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:51)

That’s where Matthew left the women on Friday night. They felt the earth shake as they watched Jesus die. They saw Joseph place his battered, bloody body in the tomb. They heard the stone roll across the entrance with a heavy, funereal thud. They watched Pilate’s guards put the seal of Rome on it and settle in to make sure that the body stayed where it belonged.

But then, the unexpected happened! The earth itself leaped for joy with the good news that God had not forsaken Jesus. God shattered the all too predictable power of death with the unexpected power of new life. It means that God has not forsaken this world to go on being what it’s been and God has not forsaken any of us to go on living the way we’ve always lived. The same God who breathed life into dusty chaos on the first morning of creation, breathed new life into the lifeless Jesus and brought forth a whole new creation.

What Was God Doing on Saturday? 

Between the two earthquakes, there is the stoney, cold silence of Saturday, when Jesus battered, lifeless body lay motionless in the tomb.  What was God doing then?

Here’s the way Wendell Berry described the way God was at work to bring new life out of death in the tomb.

What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.

The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.

The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
(A Timbered Choir, p. 25)

Perhaps the silence of Saturday is the reminder that beneath the surface, God is still at work in every dark, deadly, lifeless place to break through the darkness and bring new life. The resurrection means that tomorrow is never just another day!

May the same power that broke open the tomb on Easter morning shake us with new life preparing us to shout, “Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!”

Jim

P.S.  We’ve just completed work on a devotional guide and small group study on “Easter Earthquake”.  It will be released by The Upper Room later this year.

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Palm Sunday Politics

It’s Not Just About Trump.

Did the President do the right thing by ordering missile attacks on a Syrian airbase? Was it Constitutional? Will it make any difference? What happens next?

Those questions need to be seriously debated, but one thing is clear. A lot of people both in the US and around the world liked it. Some even suggested that it made our otherwise immoral, illiterate, and incompetent leader look “Presidential.” It provided a momentary feeling of moral superiority in “doing something” in response to an inhumane attack on innocent people by a brutal dictator.

Palm Sunday Cheers 

The cheering for Trump’s attack on Syria reminded me of the cheering crowds on Palm Sunday in “Jesus Christ, Superstar” .

When they shouted, “Hosanna!” – the imperative verb means, “Save us!” – it was more of a political than a religious acclamation. Even the waving of the palm branches had political implications. The crowds were cheering for a leader they hoped would break the strangle hold of oppressive Roman authority and set them free. It released their anguished hope for Israel to be “great again.” It was their way of announcing, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

Not that there’s anything new about all this. It goes all the way back to the first time two prehistoric cave men got in a dispute about who was in charge of the cave. When one threw a rock at the other, his opponent went looking for a larger rock. And we’ve been doing it ever since. The rocks just keep getting more dangerous and more expensive. The bible traces our murderous desire for at best, justice, or at worse, revenge, back to Cain and Able.  It’s the way the tragic effects of sin are passed on from one generation to another.

It’s not about Trump.  It’s about all of us.

Palm Sunday Tears 

jesus-weeps-over-theAnd what was Jesus doing? Luke records one of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Through his tears, he predicted the way violence always leads to more violence.

“The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, named our addiction to the idea that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” It is simply not the way of Jesus.

The Jesus Way 

Standing in opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “What is absolutely aweful and unacceptable in war is that Christians are compelled to forget their Christian faith.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 102)

I could wish that fellow United Methodists who are passionately demanding that we take a strictly literal approach to what the bible says about human sexuality would be just as passionate about taking Jesus seriously when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Contemporary Christian writer, Shane Claiborne summarized Jesus’ radical alternative when he wrote:

Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil. We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed.

Christians in every generation have found endlessly creative ways to compromise the message Jesus taught, the way he lived and the way he died.  All too easily, we end up cheering for the wrong kind of deliverer.  If only we were as endlessly creative in searching for nonviolent ways to confront the violence and injustice around us!

Bonhoeffer’s Witness 

One of the painful ironies of Bonhoeffer’s life was that although he was convinced that Jesus’ way of non-violence was central to Christian discipleship, he was hanged 72 years ago today because he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

“Even when he abandoned his non-violence to join the conspiracy, pacifism always remained his ideal…In no way did Bonhoeffer concede that the violent deeds planned by the conspirators escaped the guilt for what they had to do in attempting to free the world from the sinister, lethal grip of Adolf Hitler.” (The Cost of Moral Leadership, p. 100, 115)

Jesus’ way of nonviolence is not a quick fix for conflicts that have gone on for hundreds of years.  It’s the long-term way of life to which he calls us.  If there are times when, as a totally unavoidable last resort, a community of nations is called to use war to thwart aggression, Jesus’ followers cannot cheer for it, but must confront it with something like Bonhoeffer’s guilt and Jesus’ tears.

In the end, it’s not about Trump. It’s about the way Trump represents our desire for revenge and the longing for something that feels like justice when we see evil but choose the way of evil to attempt to end it.  It was enough to send Jesus to the cross.  It calls us to go there, too.

Peace,

Jim

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