Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

When a mass shooting occurs in the United States—and it happens all too often, doesn’t it?—lots of politicians will say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” or something like that.

This practice has become controversial in some quarters, which raises the question, “What’s wrong with thinking about and praying for victims, communities, and families in the wake of a massacre?” 

And the answer is, “Nothing.” Anybody with half a heart is going to think about the people affected by such a tragedy. Anybody with a smidgen of faith is going to pray for them.

I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t give the victims any thought, you need to go on a quest for some compassion.

So can offering up thoughts and prayers be problematic?

For some guidance, let’s turn to the book of James in the New Testament. The author is famous for his insistence that “faith without works is dead.” What he means is that if you have faith it’ll change the way you live. Trusting in Jesus leads you to do something about it. As he develops this thought he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

It’s good to think kind thoughts and to say good words. But the thoughts and words mean little to nothing if you don’t do what you can do to help, James says.

Now, some folks who criticize or mock politicians for offering up thoughts and prayers after the latest rampage really don’t think that prayer does any good. You probably know better than that. I know better than that. The good Lord can and will offer strength and hope to people who are going through unimaginable pain and loss. So I say, “Pray on!”

But—and this is an important ‘but’—you should do what you can do.

This is where some of our political leaders deserve critique.

Let me address them by paraphrasing James: “If your brothers, sisters, and little children keep getting slaughtered, and you say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’ but you do not use the power and authority you have to do something to try to help keep such tragedies from happening again, what is the good of that?”

You’ve probably heard the story that preachers have been telling for decades. A flood had struck a community. The water was beginning to fill the streets. A fellow was on his front porch when someone came by on an ATV and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The waters continued to rise. The man went to the second floor of his house and stood at a window. Some folks came by in a boat and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” A few hours later the man was on his roof as the waters continued to rise. A helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a ladder down to him. “No,” he shouted, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The water continued to rise. The man drowned.

When he got to heaven he said to the Lord, “Lord, I don’t understand. You promised to rescue me. Why didn’t you?”

And the Lord answered, “Give me a break. I sent an ATV, a boat, and a helicopter.”

Maybe when our leaders pray about these mass shootings, the Lord gives them some ideas. Maybe God expects them to be part of the answer to their prayers. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Pledges

Once upon a time, Vacation Bible School (VBS) lasted a week, took place in the morning, and featured a highly structured opening assembly. During the assembly, the pianist would play a “stand up chord” (a major lift) and a “sit down chord” (a minor fall) to signal us when we were to—well, to stand up or sit down.

Early in the ceremony, the pianist would play the stand up chord and we’d rise for the pledges. We said three. We’d pledge allegiance to the Christian flag. You may not know there is a Christian flag, much less a pledge to it, so, as a public service, here are the words to the pledge:

I pledge Allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love.

That’s the version I learned. Sometime during my childhood, our Southern Baptist VBS guide led us to stop saying “mankind.” “Good,” you might be thinking. “’Humankind’ is less sexist.” Well, no, that’s not what changed; in fact, we kept right on saying “brotherhood.” We changed “mankind” to “Christians.” I reckon we were more concerned about flirting with universalism than we were with engendering sexism.

We’d also pledge allegiance to the Bible. That pledge went like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word, and will make it a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path, and hide its words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

Over the fifty or so years that I’ve lived since those days, I’ve encountered lots of adults who pledge allegiance to the Bible, but who seem to have little allegiance to—or even awareness of—what it says, and especially of what it means.

I’ve seen lots of people who profess to be Christians who will, with great passion bordering on glee, beat you about the head with the Bible if you won’t join them in swearing allegiance to it.

I’ve seen many people whose lives reflect the Savior who shows us what the words of the Bible mean but who won’t, out of their commitment as Christians, swear allegiance to the Bible, be vilified by people who swear such allegiance but whose lives exhibit little to none of the love and grace of Jesus.

Sometimes people who swear allegiance to the Bible embody its teachings much less than others who won’t swear allegiance to it.

It’s hard to accept that someone is loyal to the Bible when he or she exhibits hate instead of love, prefers conflict over reconciliation, and utters falsehoods rather than truth. It’s easier to believe that someone who exhibits love, seeks reconciliation, and speaks truth believes the Bible, even if she or he won’t swear allegiance to it.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

We also pledged allegiance to United States flag in our VBS assembly.

I think I’ve heard some talk lately about how some people respond to that flag and how other people respond to those who respond. Maybe you’ve heard it too.

Sometimes it seems that people who say they take the flag seriously may not take that “liberty and justice for all” line quite as seriously. And sometimes it seems that people who have some reservations about pledging allegiance to the flag have more allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” than those who criticize them.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

As for me—well, I’ll pledge allegiance to the flag. I’ll also stand for the National Anthem.  In doing so, I’m pledging allegiance to the republic whose goal is to make liberty and justice available to all and to be a land where all are free to strive for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I do so recognizing that some who choose to act differently than I do may be doing so to help us think about just how far we have to go in becoming “the land of the free” where “liberty and justice” are truly “for all.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Some Brief Observations on Judeo-Christian Values

We hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” from time to time, often from the mouths of politicians seeking to curry favor with some gullible or misguided audience.

It might set you to wondering what those values are.

Based on what some of those audiences promote and cheer, we might conclude that they think that Judeo-Christian values involve protecting your right to say “Merry Christmas” while refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding while advocating for a nuclear attack on North Korea.

I have a different sense of what Judeo-Christian values involve.

Let’s hear from some experts on the subject.

Rabbi Hillel was one of the most important teachers of Judaism. He was active from around 30 BCE until about 10 CE. One day a man told Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

When someone asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:30-31).

The Apostle Paul said, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).

To conclude: if your Judeo-Christian values aren’t based on doing right by other people and wanting what’s best for them, they may be values, but they aren’t Judeo-Christian.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fifty-Nine and Not Holding

Now hear this: I turned fifty-nine a few days ago. Math was never my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that’s one less than sixty. I’ll hit that milestone next year, Lord willing.

I’ve reached the point in life at which many folks start slowing down as they move toward retirement.

Not me. I’m just getting cranked up.

Before I say anything else about that, let me state that if it all ends tomorrow, I’ve already had a better life than I ever hoped or dreamed I’d have. I have a good wife, remarkable children, and a fine grandson. I’ve had a fulfilling and varied career and I love the job and side projects I have now. I’ve had and have many good friends. I’ve seen a lot of places. I’ve had a lot of experiences, some bad and most good. I have no complaints. It’s been a full life and I’m grateful for every second of it.

But if the Lord gives me more years and at least moderately good health, I have no intention of throttling back. There’s just too much to do, too much to learn, and too much to be.

I’m going to keep growing until I draw my last breath.

I want to learn to speak at least one more language (I’m torn between Spanish and Arabic. I may do both). I want to fill in the gaps in my education, especially in science. I want to read five thousand more books. I want to see more of the world.

I want to write a novel. I want to write the lyrics to one song that at least one person records. I want to write one poem that gets published. I’ve written one memoir, but I want to write another one.

I’m privileged to teach two groups of freshmen at Gordon State College. They’re forty years younger than I am. When I look at them, I think about how they have so many years ahead of them. I remember how, when I was their age, life seemed to stretch out so far ahead of me I could scarcely imagine that the road had an end.

Now I realize there’s a stop sign up ahead that I can’t avoid. But I can and will ignore the yield signs that I’ll encounter along the way.

I admit to some frustration. I know I won’t get everything done I want to do. I know some of my goals will remain unmet and some of my dreams will go unfulfilled.

But I’ll tell you this:  I’m going to have a good time trying. And when it’s all over, no one will be able to say I wasted my time.

I don’t know what I’ll die of, but it won’t be boredom.

And I don’t know what I’ll die with, but it won’t be regret.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Loving Our Neighbors

I’ve been thinking about what it means to love someone.

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So I reckon if we’re going to love somebody that way, we need to know how we love ourselves.

To love myself means that I want what’s best for me. I want to be the best version of me that I can possibly be. Because I love myself, I want to build on my strengths and I want to strengthen my weaknesses. I want to face my mistakes, failures, and insufficiencies so I can become a better person. I want to live up to my potential. I want to live out my ideals.

So if I love my neighbors as I love myself, I want what’s best for them. I want them to be all they can be. I want them to succeed and even to thrive. I want them to be the best possible versions of themselves. And I want all of that for them as much as I want it for me. I want the fullest life I can have and I want them to have the fullest lives they can have.

There’s a point at which this gets a little dicey, though.

It’s one thing for me to call myself out on my mistakes and failings and to challenge myself to be and do better. It’s another thing for me to call my neighbors out on theirs and to challenge them. They may dare to think that it’s none of my business.

But living in community requires that we take a certain amount of responsibility for each other. To want the best for others requires that we try to help each other understand the ways in which we are not living up to our potential so we can try to do better.

With all of that in mind, how should we show our love for our country, for our communities of faith, and for our families? If we adopt the stance that loving them means believing they can do no wrong, we don’t really love them. But if we want them to face up to their shortcomings so they can move toward being the best version of themselves they can be, then we really do love them.

To love ourselves means that we want what’s best for us. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to achieve that goal. To love our neighbors as we love ourselves means that we want what’s best for them. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to help them achieve that goal.

Whether we stand or kneel, whether we resist or support, and whether we speak out or remain silent, our motivation matters. It is possible for love or something far less than love to motivate someone to take the stand she or he takes. If someone’s heartfelt desire is to help the nation be the best nation it can be, then their motivation is sound. It is always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It is even possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason. We also will do well to evaluate our own motivation before we go judging someone else’s.

As the Apostle Paul said, no matter what great things I do, if I don’t have love, “I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

If we are motivated by love, then we do whatever we do because we want to help our neighbors realize and pursue their ideals so they can be the best Americans, the best people of faith, or the best family members they can be. That effort might involve the hard and painful work of pointing out how we don’t live up to our ideals.

How would things be different if love, defined as wanting the best for our neighbors just as we want it for ourselves, motivated our perspectives on, opinions of, and actions toward our fellow Americans?

How would things be different if that same kind of love motivated our leaders? What might they do if they love the people they are elected to represent?

How would love respond to people’s need for quality affordable health care?

How would love respond to the epidemic of mass murder in our society?

How would love respond to the danger posed to people because of ongoing damage to the environment?

How would love respond to the injustice experienced by far too many people?

Motives matter. 

I challenge you to love your neighbors as you love yourself. I challenge you to want the best for them just as you want it for yourself.

I challenge our leaders to love the American people more than you love your egos, your political parties, your dogmas, your ability to stay in office, and your corporate benefactors.

Folks, if our leaders don’t try to work together to do what is best for us and what will give us greater freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then they don’t love us.

And next election, we should replace them with people who do.

Do it because you love yourself.

Do it because you love your neighbors as you love yourself.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Forty Years of Rings

It was about this time of year in 1977 that I returned to Mercer University for my senior year. A girl named Debra Johnson returned for her junior year. She came back to Macon wearing the engagement ring I’d given her the month before as we’d stood beside the Towaliga River below High Falls.

I’m not being arrogant when I say I wasn’t concerned about whether she’d accept the ring. After all, she’d picked it out. Even though there was no mystery surrounding the proposal, there was much mystery surrounding the future. Nobody really knows what lies ahead, do they?

We had nothing but good intentions. We truly believed we were supposed to be together. I’d go so far as to say we believed God was calling us together. But lots of our friends believed that too, many of whom are long since divorced. By God’s grace we are still married. We also still love each other. We even still like each other!

Somewhere along the way we had the setting on Debra’s ring grafted onto a different band. One day a few years later, she realized the diamond had gone missing from the setting. Finding a large diamond would be hard, so finding this one was impossible. I kept saying, “We need to get you another ring.” She kept saying, “We’ll see."

Eventually she made a decision. She said, “I’d like to have your mother’s rings resized so I can wear them.”

My mother died before I met Debra. It’s a shame. They would have done a good job ganging up on me. But I thought Debra’s choice to wear Mama’s rings was sweet. I also confess to being pleased that it was inexpensive.

Debra had for years hinted around about something she wished I’d give her. Not being a mind-reader, I’d more than once asked her to just tell me what it was. She’d say, “It won’t mean as much if you don’t think of it yourself.” Did I mention I’m not a mind-reader?

When we picked up Mama’s resized rings and Debra put them on, she said, “You know that thing I’ve wanted you to think of giving me? This is it.”

Oh well.

Eventually I decided that Debra should have a new ring of her own. So I put one on layaway at a local jewelry store and paid it off over a couple of years. I gave it to her while we were spending a weekend at Callaway Gardens, where we had gone on our honeymoon twenty-four years before. It was in August, around the twenty-fifth anniversary of my giving her the original ring. As we sat beside the lake, I tried to tell her what she means to me. She cried a little. We had a very nice seafood dinner that night.

She’s been wearing that ring for fifteen years. Maybe it’s the last one. Maybe not.

As for me—well, I’m still wearing the simple gold band she slipped on my finger on June 10, 1978 as we stood at the altar of the Baptist church in Leary, Georgia.

I don’t remember what the preachers (we used two, because we wanted to make sure it stuck) said that day. Over the years I’ve presided over a lot of wedding ceremonies. At each of them I’ve held up the groom’s ring and said something like this: “The wedding band is a circle, which symbolizes the unending nature of the marriage relationship.”

We went into our marriage believing that. We still do.

No, you can’t know what the future holds. When I gave Debra her engagement ring forty years ago, we had lots of hopes and dreams and absolutely no assurances. But we went into it in faith, trusting that God would help us keep growing, learning, and loving.

We still don’t know what the future holds. But I am so grateful for all we have experienced together for the last four decades. And I am glad that, whatever comes, we’ll face it, as we always have, together.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Big Bang, Big Crunch, Big Bang

(A sermon based on 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20. Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon, GA on August 27, 2017)

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait …
It all started with a big bang! Bang!

We’d add a line before those that says, “And God said, ‘Let there be …’”

Still, the best we can tell, that’s the way God did it. It all started with this tremendously dense dot (scientists call it a “singularity”) that banged, and when it banged, boy howdy. The resulting universe is still expanding. Some experts think it will just keep on keeping on.

That’s also how God made the people that came to be known as Israel. There was this tremendously dense pair of dots—a “duality,” it you will—named Sarah and Abraham, and when they started expanding—well, actually, not much happened at first. It was all they could do to have Isaac. But eventually things took off, and boy howdy. Next thing they knew they were a multitude living in a relatively prosperous place under relatively successful monarchs named David and Solomon. God had told Abraham that he’d have descendants in numbers like the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and, if we allow for a little divine hyperbole, he did.

But something—lots of things, actually—went wrong. Maybe one of the things that went wrong was that Abraham’s descendants never quite got, or never quite accepted, or never quite wanted to accept, that little detail in the promise to Abraham about how they were to bless other people. But differently, maybe it all became too much about their privilege and too little about their responsibility (that was in fact part of their privilege). In short, maybe it became a little too much about them and not enough about other folks.

So when the prophet whose words we find in Isaiah 40-55 told his listeners, “Look to the rock from which you are hewn” and identified that rock as Abraham and Sarah, the irony hurt. Abraham and Sarah had left Mesopotamia, gone to Canaan, and become many. Now their descendants were in exile in Mesopotamia, were exiled from Canaan, and had become few.

I mentioned earlier that some experts think the universe will expand forever. But others think that eventually gravity will take over and the universe will start contracting. They also think that it will contract until it becomes another singularity where all the matter in the universe will again be smaller than a subatomic particle.

So why are we here anyway? I don’t mean why are we here in the universe; I mean why are we here in church, worshiping God and trying to follow Jesus?

We’re here because somewhere along the way we began to realize who Jesus is. Maybe it happened in a flash; maybe it happened over time; maybe we just kind of always sort of knew. Simon Peter and the other disciples had been following Jesus around for a while, watching what he did and listening to what he said. So one day when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, Peter piped right up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus told Peter that he knew that because heaven had revealed it to him, that he was going to build his church on the rock of such heavenly insight, and that having such insight would give Peter important responsibilities indeed.

“And just think,” Peter might have said to himself, “we’re right here with you. I’m right here with you.”

You and us, Jesus. You and me, Jesus. It’s going to be great. We’re going to be great. I’m going to be great.

It’s understandable. It’s even good. We should spend as much time with Jesus as we can. We should get to know him as well as we can. We should develop that relationship as much as we can.

But think of the energy being with Jesus produces. What will happen if we keep on focusing it inward, if we let it all be about us, about me?

A big crunch will happens. And if we stay that way, we and the world will be the poorer for it.

A big bang needs to happen. All of that spiritual energy that is compressed in our relationship with Jesus needs to be turned outward.

And so after Peter said the right words about Jesus (“you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”), Jesus started telling the disciples what that meant.

He told them that he was going to suffer, die, and rise again. Peter didn’t like that. He said it couldn’t be. And then, when Jesus said that to follow him meant to lose your life, it probably dawned on Peter that what he was afraid of was true: it wasn’t just about Jesus and him. It was about Jesus and him and the world and everybody in it. It was about giving yourself away and taking others’ pain onto yourself. It was about loving your neighbor as yourself as well as loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It’s about turning the energy of our relationship with Jesus outward.

Some experts believe that the big bang that produced our universe is just one of a series. They say that every trillion years or so, a big crunch happens followed by another big bang.

Maybe every once in a while we need to go into big crunch mode: you know, let it just be about Jesus and us or Jesus and me for a while.

But it can’t stay that way, not for long.

There’s just too much love, grace, mercy, and peace to spread around.