Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What Are You Immersed In?

In a recent service at the First United Methodist Church of Barnesville, Georgia, Pastor Cyndi McDonald led us to remember our baptism. At the end of the service, she invited us to dip our hands in the water in the baptismal font as a way of doing so.

During her excellent sermon, Pastor Cyndi explained that Methodists baptize in three ways: sprinkling (which requires just a little water), pouring (which requires more water), and immersion (which requires a lot of water).

I’m a lifelong Baptist who often attends a Methodist church and often preaches in Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches. I used to be Southern Baptist, but now I identity with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I’ve often said that I was Baptist before I was Christian. A few of you will know what a Cradle Roll is. It was a big deal back in 1958 when I came along. When babies were born into a Baptist church, they were placed on the Cradle Roll, which meant they were enrolled in Sunday School. I can’t prove it, but I suspect someone was standing in the delivery room at the Lamar County Maternity Shelter to sign me up the second I entered the world. My mother would have wanted it that way.

When Reverend Bill Coleman baptized me one Sunday night in 1966 (along with others, including my friend Debbie Smith Haywood and my distant cousins Bruce Swatts and Rudy Knight), it was by immersion, which is a fancy word for dunking. There’s a scene in the 1970 film Little Big Man in which a frontier preacher holds Dustin Hoffman’s character under the water for so long that he almost drowns. Preacher Bill didn’t do that to me, but he did dunk me thoroughly.

Whenever I participate in a service in which we remember our baptism, I remember my first one. I was doing some continuing education at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. During worship, we were invited to remember our baptism. I think I was the only Baptist among a bunch of Presbyterians and other Protestants. One of the Presbyterian ministers asked me what I as a Baptist thought about putting my fingers in the water to remember my baptism. I replied, “I found it very meaningful, but I did have to fight off the urge to jump into the bowl.”

I find it helpful to remember my baptism. It’s encouraging to remember the warm water enfolding me. I realize better now than I did then (and if I didn’t after the passing of fifty-three years, how sad would that be?) what the act symbolizes: I have been buried with Christ and raised to new life in him.

What does it mean to be immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ? What does it mean to be buried with him and to be raised to new life in him?

Surely it means that we are immersed in the love, mercy, and grace that Jesus embodied. Surely it means that we live in faith and in hope. Surely it means that we practice acceptance and inclusion.

I don’t know what to think when I encounter baptized folks whose lives indicate that they are immersed in fear, in despair, in hate, in anger, and in prejudice. I don’t know Christ that way, and I don’t understand how someone can follow Christ in those ways.

Don’t hear me wrong. No Christian fully follows Jesus all the time. We stumble and fall. We sin and fail. But surely we should always be growing toward living in the way our baptism points us toward.

The water of baptism dries, but the effects of baptism continue.

I hope my fellow believers and I will continue to grow in practicing Christ’s love, grace, mercy, faith, and hope.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Broader Perspective

1968 was a tough year. The Vietnam War was raging. Assassins struck down Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy. Riots tore apart major American cities. The divisions between people were sharp.

But something happened at the end of that year that showed us something we really needed to know. And many of us watched it on television.

I was ten years old, sitting on the floor in front of our nineteen-inch black and white television set in the little den of the little house on Memorial Drive. I joined millions of other people in watching the images of the moon’s surface being beamed to Earth by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8. I listened as the three explorers— Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—read the opening verses of the creation poem found in the first chapter of the biblical book ofGenesis.

It was—and I am very selective in how I use this word—awesome.

As Apollo 8 took its ten trips around the moon, Astronaut Bill Anders took many photographs of the moon’s surface to help identify possible landing sites for future lunar missions. On one of the craft’s revolutions around the moon, Earth came into view. As it did, Anders took several shots of it. One of those pictures has become iconic. The photograph, with its image of a blue globe rising over the bleak lunar landscape against the blackness of space, is known as “Earthrise.”

The astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were the first human beings to travel to the moon and back and to see the far side of the moon. In an essay written for space.com on the occasion of the fiftiethanniversary of their Christmas Eve 1968 experience, Anders reflected on the Earth that he and his fellow astronauts saw from their lunar orbit:

The Earth we saw rising over the battered grey lunar surface was small and delicate, a magnificent spot of color in the vast blackness of space. Once-distant places appeared inseparably close. Borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.

Anders went on to say,

Fifty years later, "Earthrise"—the lingering imprint of our mission—stands sentinel. It still reminds us that distance and borders and division are merely a matter of perspective. We are all linked in a joined human enterprise; we are bound to a planet we all must share. We are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure.

We had never seen Earth from the perspective of astronauts orbiting the moon. We had never had the privilege of seeing it as a unified whole rather than in its constituent parts.

Fifty years later, I’m afraid we’ve forgotten that we’re all in this together. I’m afraid we’ve failed to remember that all human beings share responsibility for this planet. I’m afraid that we seldom think, talk, and act as if there is more that unites us than divides us.

In the 1996 film Independence Day, aliens launch a devastating attack on Earth. Eventually, forces from all over the world band together to carry out a counterattack. Former foes join to fight against a common enemy in order to save humankind.

I know that the divisions in our world—and even in our nation—are deep. But I believe that we need to come together to combat our common enemies. The list of those enemies is long, but I’ll mention just two: climate change and poverty. Both of these crises drive and will continue to drive the problems of war, famine, and mass migration that beset our world.

 I realize that our perspective tends to be narrow: we focus on our nation, our state, our community, and our family. But I want to call your attention back to the perspective the Apollo 8 astronauts gave us. Let’s adopt a broader perspective.

We all live on this planet. We’re all in this together. We need to work together for the sake of all humanity.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Merry Christmas from the Family

My Good Wife and I like to watch classic Christmas movies. Among our favorites are It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Elf, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

We have a broad definition of “classic.”

The other night we turned our attention to an under-appreciated admittedly non-classic made-for-television film: A Very Brady Christmas (1988). That’s Brady as in The Brady Bunch.

As the film opens, we learn that Mike and Carol are now empty nesters. They’ve been saving money for a special vacation, but decide to spend it on plane tickets for all six of their children (and, where applicable, their children’s families) to come home for Christmas. Naturally, they anticipate a fun and joyous time of family harmony.

But every child is dealing with a crisis. Marcia’s husband just lost his job. Jan and her husband are separated. Greg’s wife wants to spend Christmas with her family. Peter is in love but hesitates to propose because his girlfriend is his boss. Bobby has dropped out of graduate school to drive stock cars. And college student Cindy is tired of being treated like “the youngest one in curls”—she hasn’t even worn her hair in curls for years!

On top of all that, Alice the housekeeper moves back in because her husband, Sam the Butcher, has left her for another woman.

Half an hour in, the tension was almost unbearable.

But after ninety minutes of drama and comedy (dramedy, to use a modern term), every crisis has been resolved and everybody is happy and at peace.

Oh wait, I forgot to mention the cave-in. Mike survives a cave-in. On Christmas Day. At a work site on 34th Street. It’s a miracle!

It really is a wonderful life.

Oh, if things could be that simple in real life.

A lot of us will gather with our families during this holiday season. In many cases, the experience will be challenging. That’s because relationships are complicated. People get hurt. Families have drama. Some of our conflicts are over significant things, but some are over trivial stuff.

I won’t try to sugarcoat it: some of us will have a very difficult Christmas, and it will be because of problems with those we love best. But I hope we’ll work things out as best we can. I hope we’ll embrace each other with all our flaws. I hope we’ll try to understand each other.

Mostly, I hope we’ll try to love each other.

It’s not a Christmas episode, but I think a lot about the Modern Family season one episode “Family Portrait.” An effort to take a perfect family portrait has gone awry as a mud fight breaks out among the white-clad family members.

In a voiceover at the episode’s conclusion, Jay (played by Ed O’Neill) says, “Back in '68…I had this mental picture of the family that, if I was lucky enough, I would end up with. Perfect wife, perfect kids... Well guess what? I didn't get any of that. I wound up with this sorry bunch. And I'm thankful for that every day. Well, most days.”

May it ever be so for all of us.

Merry Christmas from my family to yours!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Christmas List

I remember when I wanted lots of things for Christmas. “How many things?” you might ask. Well, let’s just say that had I sent a letter to Santa, it would have required extra postage.

Somewhere there’s an 8mm film of nine-year-old me monopolizing Santa’s time as I tick off the items on my list while adults in the background laugh. But I wasn’t one to take chances.

There were just so many toys to choose from. How was a boy supposed to decide what he had to have and what he could live without? Besides, how many chances did you get to say “I want all of this” and know you had a decent chance of getting a lot of it?

I figured it was best to tell Santa I wanted everything and to trust him to decide what was best.

Now, I lived under special circumstances. I was the only child of middle-class parents. They spoiled me a little bit, by which I mean a lot. I got more for Christmas than I should have. It sure was fun.

As I approach my sixtieth Christmas, I think I may have finally reached peak maturity. I realized this the other day when my Good Wife said, “You haven’t told me anything you want for Christmas” and I answered, “That’s because I don’t want anything.”

I wasn’t kidding. And I wasn’t trying to be noble.

In previous years I’ve said that I didn’t need anything, but I think this is the first one when I’ve said I didn’t want anything. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that I really don’t. But I really don’t.

Oh, that doesn’t mean that I won’t enjoy opening any presents I might get. And I will get a few, because despite my failure to produce a wish list, my wife and children will give me things, and I’ll be happy to receive them because I know the love that stands behind them. Besides, I like surprises.

Here’s the thing though: I have everything I want, mainly because I have everybody I want. I have a good wife, good children, good children-in-law, a good grandson, and a soon-to-be-born good granddaughter. While they are all good in the sense of being opposite from bad, that’s not what I mean. I mean that they are good gifts of God. I have them not because I deserve them, but rather by the grace of God.

Now that I think about it, there is one thing I want for Christmas: I want everybody to have people in their lives that they love and that love them. I want everybody to experience that grace.

Maybe it’s a mark of real maturity when we realize that the joy we find in our closest relationships is incomplete until everybody knows such joy.

This Christmas, I wish it for you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Sometimes I hear from people who agree with or appreciate what I write. I hear much less often from people who disagree with or don’t appreciate it.

You expect both agreement and disagreement when you write an opinion piece, which is what I do. You know what they say about opinions: everybody has one. Someone’s opinion might line up with mine. Or it might not.

Back when I was a pastor, I’d sometimes say to my congregation, “Sometimes I’m right and you’re wrong, and sometimes you’re wrong and I’m right.” My saying that is #9 on my list of Forty-Seven Reasons I’m No Longer a Pastor.

Here’s the thing, though: I do think I’m right. I do think that my opinions are more correct than the opinions of people who disagree with me.

If you stop and think about it, you’ll realize the utter reasonableness of that statement. If I didn’t think my opinion was more correct than those who hold a different opinion, then I’d share their opinion, and we wouldn’t disagree anymore, would we? And vice-versa.

I do try to follow some guidelines in expressing my opinions.

Guideline #1: humility. I recognize my limitations. I am limited by my background and by my experiences. I never forget that not only do I not know everything; I don’t even know all that much. I know a lot about a little and a little about a lot. I remember that I am always learning and growing. I acknowledge that I might not be fully right. I may even be wrong. Occasionally.

Guideline #2: honesty. I try to tell the truth. You may agree or disagree with what I say. I may be right or I may be proven wrong. But I assure you that I never write anything that I don’t believe to be the truth. I realize that what I say might sometimes rankle some readers, but I say it because I believe it’s true, not because I want to rankle. I will admit to hoping my words challenge folks, but again, I want to challenge you with the truth, not with lies.

Guideline #3: love. My goal is for love to motivate everything I write. That means that compassion and empathy undergird my words. It means I want to encourage us all to put other people ahead of ourselves. Such motives characterize decent human beings. A human being who follows Jesus should find those motives being amplified. I write and share my opinions with the conviction that it is better to be loving than to be right. But I hope I say everything I say because of the love I have for people and because I want us to love each other.

You might not think that adhering to those guidelines in forming and expressing an opinion is necessary.

Well, with all the humility, honesty, and love I can muster, let me say that sometimes I’m right and you’re wrong, and sometimes you’re wrong and I’m right!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Some Things I’m Thankful For

As our annual day of Thanksgiving approaches, I thought I’d share some of the things for which I’m thankful.

      1.     I am thankful for people who are self-aware enough to know they’re not self-aware enough, open-minded enough to know they’re not open-minded enough, and well-read enough to know they’re not well-read enough.

      2.     I am thankful for people who give me hope for the future by doing risky things like getting married and having children.

      3.     I am thankful for how my Bible beats me about the head whenever I’m tempted to use it to beat someone else about the head.

      4.     I am thankful for those churches that invite me to preach in the hope that they need to hear what I have to say and for those churches that don’t invite me out of fear that they won’t like what I have to say.

      5.     I am thankful for people who live authentically without devaluing the experiences of others.

      6.     I am thankful for people who are able to live in gray areas where tension and nuance dwell.

      7.     I am thankful for those whose political positions begin with wanting what’s best for others rather than with what’s best for them.

      8.     I am thankful for people who are brave enough to think for themselves and wise enough to know that most of what they think has probably been thought before by someone else.

      9.     I am thankful for those who see and treat people as sisters and brothers to be loved rather than as objects to be manipulated.

      10. I am thankful for people who find strength in weakness and weakness in strength.

      11. I am thankful for those who move toward the future with hope and faith rather than cling to the past with fear and despair.

      12. I am thankful for people who are humble enough to know they don’t have all that much to be humble about because they aren’t as great as they think they are anyway.

      13. I am thankful for people whose agreement with me encourages me and for those whose disagreement with me challenges me.

      14. I am thankful for people who live in ways that show they try to remember that loving God and loving people go hand-in-hand. 

      15. I am thankful for those I’ve lost who help me appreciate those I have and for those I have who help me appreciate those I’ve lost.

      16. I am thankful that grace is greater than sin and that love is greater than hate.

I hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving Day, and I hope you’ll give some thought to what you’re thankful for.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Zombie Apocalypse

In an October 21 story on NPR’s Weekend Edition program, I learned about a course that Professor Eric Smaw teaches at Rollins College called “Zombies, Serial Killers, and Madmen.” It’s the most popular course at the college. It’s a morning class now, but Smaw used to teach it at midnight. Spooky.

Toward the end of host Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s interview with Smaw, the following exchange took place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Miami Herald profiled you this past week, which is where we heard about your class. And you had some advice for those of us fearing the coming zombie apocalypse. And I count myself among them. So how should we survive?

SMAW: (Laughter) OK. So if a zombie apocalypse hits, you'll need food and water, shelter and, of course, ammunition to fight off the zombie attack. And the place that I can think of that would have plenty of it and a lot of space for you to move around is Walmart. So I often tell people, go to Walmart. Hunker down. And fight it out for as long as you can.

I could make a joke about encountering zombies at Walmart, but I won’t.

Let me be clear: of all the types of apocalypse we could be concerned about, I’d put the zombie type way down the list.

Zombies, as you probably know, are the walking dead (thus the title of the series filmed just up the road). The fictional kind have died and then been reanimated. They lack personal will. They are soulless. They exist, but they are really lifeless.

If we interpret the word non-literally, maybe we already have a kind of zombie apocalypse going on.

It seems to me that a lot of us have given up our will. In particular, we’ve given it up to particular points of view that are put forward by particular politicians or political parties and championed by particular media outlets. We don’t think for ourselves. We let others think for us, and we just second what they say.

This is understandable in a way. After all, we only have so much time, and there is so much information out there. Most of us have a basic framework within which we view the world, and it is easy to just go along with those who seem to align best with our preconceived notions. But we do ourselves a disservice if we give our will up to others.

It also seems to me that too many of us have given up our souls. I’m using “soul” in the sense of “our inmost self that makes us who we really are” and I’m using “given up” in the sense of “surrendering even those basic traits that make us human.” The traits I have in mind are concern, understanding, empathy, and compassion.

In the movies, zombies devour the living. In real life, soulless folks devour other people by thinking of, speaking of, and acting toward them in cruel, hurtful, or dismissive ways.

I’m not worried about a literal zombie apocalypse, but I am very concerned about the figurative one that seems already to be underway.

I don’t recommend hunkering down at Walmart.

I do recommend prayer. I also recommend reading. I recommend thinking for ourselves and expanding our knowledge as much as possible so we can think as clearly as possible. I recommend relating to as many different kinds of people as we can. I recommend doing whatever we can do to develop more empathy and compassion.

Maybe the best way to combat the zombie apocalypse is to make sure we don’t give up our own wills, minds, and souls.