Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Cross and COVID-19

(A reflection on Matthew 27:37-54. This post appeared originally at Coracle, the blog of Next Sunday Resources.)

When the devil tested Jesus in the wilderness, he introduced two of his three challenges with, “If you are the Son of God” (Mt 4:3, 6). In refusing the devil’s challenges, Jesus declined to prove his identity on the devil’s terms. To do so would have been to abandon the mission he had as the Son of God. To do so would have been to deny his identity as the Son of God. To do so would have been to claim the victory without going through the battle.

That was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now he is at its end.

Now Jesus hangs on the cross. He is dying. Now it isn’t the devil challenging him, but people. Passersby use the same words the devil used as they challenge Jesus to prove his identity: “If you are the Son of God.” He can prove it, they say, if he will “come down from the cross” (v. 40). Some of the religious leaders say a similar thing: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (v. 43).

But Jesus doesn’t come down from the cross. He doesn’t because to do so would be to abandon the mission he has as the Son of God. To do so would be to deny his identity as the Son of God. Ironically, he proves he is the Son of God by staying on the cross. He proves he is the Son of God by dying.

Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. Would Jesus have still been the Son of God had he come down from the cross? Yes, but he would not have been the Son of God he was supposed to be. He would not have done what the Son of God was supposed to do. To be who he was as the Son of God, Jesus had to stay on the cross.

I think a lot these days—all days, really—about what it means to follow Jesus. When we trust in Jesus as our Savior, we commit to following him. We become Jesus’ sisters and brothers. We become children of God.

Whether we realize it or not, we are also challenged with the words “If you are a child of God…” We are constantly tempted to prove we are God’s children by thinking and acting in ways that run counter to what it means to be God’s children.

Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. He proved his identity by entering into our suffering and thereby overcoming it. We benefit from his death on the cross. As his sisters and brothers, as his followers, as his fellow children of God, we also participate in his death on the cross.

During these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are called to live as children of God. We are called to enter into the world’s suffering so as to contribute to its redemption. Some pastors and Christians hear the world’s (and maybe the devil’s) taunts: “If you are the children of God, keep having public gatherings to prove that God will protect you from the virus.” Here’s one of many problems with that kind of thinking and living: it isn’t redemptive. It doesn’t help deal with the problem of the virus.

Jesus couldn’t come down from the cross because to do so wouldn’t have been redemptive. It wouldn’t have contributed to the defeat of sin and death. It would have ignored, avoided, and perpetuated the problem. Jesus defeated death by entering into it and thereby destroying it from the inside out.

If we could contribute to stopping the virus by gathering to worship, that would be the appropriate thing to do. But we can’t. If we insist on gathering, we contribute to COVID-19’s spread, not to its curtailment.

We can’t help stop the virus by getting sick ourselves and thereby joining our lives to those who are suffering with the disease.

We can only contribute to stopping the virus by joining in what the world is going through by staying at home.

Jesus defeated death by dying on the cross. We’ll help defeat COVID-19 by dying to arrogance, to ignorance, and to presumption. We’ll help defeat it by living in humility, knowledge, and trust.

Jesus saved us from sin, judgment, and death by staying on the cross. That’s how he showed that he was (and is) God’s Son.

We can help save people from sickness and death by staying home. That’s how we can show that we are God’s children and Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Prayer for Use in On-Line Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis

O God,

We know you see us wherever we are. We know you are with us wherever we are. We know you love us wherever we are.

Today, many of us are in our homes, doing what we can to protect ourselves and others from the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus. Some of us are at work, doing all we can to make sure people have life’s necessities during this challenging time. Others of us are serving in our roles as medical professionals, testing people with symptoms and tending to those who have COVID-19 or other illnesses.

Thank you for the opportunities we have to serve each other, both those we know and those we don’t know, during this time, whether we help by doing something or by doing nothing. Use our active and passive contributions to stem the tide of this illness.

In these difficult days, give our leaders wisdom to lead us in the right ways. Give our scientists wisdom to develop an effective vaccine and to identity effective treatments for the disease. Give our doctors and nurses wisdom to know how best to help those in their care. Give our ministers wisdom to strengthen our spirits, to encourage us to think of others, and to guide our churches to make sound decisions. Give all of us wisdom to follow the advice of experts who are trying to teach us how to protect ourselves and others.

Protect those whose necessary service puts them at risk. Protect those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Protect us all.

O God, we need protection from threats other than the virus. Please protect us from excessive fear, from selfishness, and from apathy. Protect us from ways of thinking, talking, and acting that indicate racism, classism, or other sinful assumptions and perspectives.

Fill us to overflowing with your love, your grace, your mercy, and your peace, so that they pour out of us and on to others.

O God, we are not together today. And yet we are together. We are together because your love, your Spirit, and our fellowship bind us even we are apart. We are together in you.

As your scattered yet united people, we praise your name, ask for your help, and seek your will.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord we pray,

Amen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Repentance

Many Christians observe the forty days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as the season of Lent. The name “Lent” comes from an old word meaning “to lengthen,” and, since the days get longer in the spring, it came to name that season. Lent is a season of repentance that is often accompanied by fasting.

It being that time of year, I’ve been thinking about what I need to repent of. (Some of you will say that I need to repent of ending that sentence with a preposition. I’m sorry, but “about that of which I need to repent” is too highfalutin for my taste.)

Let’s set my grammatical sins aside and move on to what I really do need to repent of. To repent means to turn away from something, but it also means to turn toward something else. So I’ll also mention the positive changes I need to make.

I need to repent of self-centeredness. I need to stop thinking of myself as much as I do. I need to stop putting myself first in my list of concerns. I need to turn toward empathy. I need to try to put myself in others’ place so I can attempt to see life from their perspective. I recognize that I neither can nor should stop thinking about myself. I also recognize that I can’t really see things as others do. But I can try. I can do better.

I need to repent of dullness. I’m not talking about my personality. I’m talking about my mental laziness. Oh, I spend most of my waking hours editing, reading, and writing, so my brain stays active. But I’m too limited in what I deem possible. I need to turn toward imagination. I need to open my thinking up to ways I’ve never thought before and to possibilities I’ve never considered. I recognize that I can’t think about everything. I realize that my imagination has its limits. But I can do better at pushing toward them.

I need to repent of despair. Too often I look at the way things are and I throw up my mental hands and say, “What’s the use?” Sometimes I let myself think that if people really want to go down the road toward destruction, let them. I need to turn toward hope. I need to believe that change is possible. I need to keep working toward a better world. I know that sometimes I’ll get discouraged, but I also know that I—that we—can’t give up and can’t stop trying.

I need to repent of assumption. I’m guilty of assuming that I’m right, which means that I’m guilty of assuming that other people are wrong. I need to turn toward humility. I need to stop and consider the very real possibility that I’m wrong. The problem is with my first thought. That is, I tend to automatically assume that my attitude, position, and opinion are correct. I need to analyze what I think and what others think about an issue, and then, taking all the evidence I can muster into account, make a decision. If I need to change my mind, so be it. If I was right to begin with, so be it.

Maybe you need to turn away from similar ways of thinking. Maybe you need to turn toward similar ways of thinking. Hopefully, if we will by God’s grace and by our best efforts move toward thinking in more gracious and loving ways, we’ll also move toward living in more gracious and loving ways.

This kind of living takes much energy and great effort. But it’s worth it.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Let Your Light Shine

Sometime in the fifth century BC, not too many years after Jewish exiles returned to Judah from Babylon and several hundred years before Jesus was born, a preacher delivered a message preserved for us in the fifty-eighth chapter of the biblical book of Isaiah.

The preacher told the people that when it came to worship, they were missing the point. As with all preachers in that day, this one believed so strongly that he was speaking for God, he could actually quote the Lord’s words. So he presents the following words as if God is speaking them about the people:

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God (v. 2).

These words display some holy sarcasm. God says that the people act as if they want to know and do what God wants them to be and do, but they really don’t. They “worship,” God tells them, only for what they think they can get out of it. Their focus isn’t on God, but rather on themselves.

God particularly addresses their practice of fasting, which is the giving up of something (food, for example) for a period of time in order to become more aware of your dependence on God. Speaking through the prophet, God tells the people that their fasting is meaningless (as are their other worship practices, no doubt) because they keep on mistreating and oppressing people.

Then God says,

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin
(vv. 6-7)?

The fast God wants, God says, is for God’s people to help the helpless, to lift up the downtrodden, and to liberate the oppressed. If the people would do that, God tells them, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…” (v. 8a).

Real worship focuses on God, not on ourselves. We truly worship when we worship in order to show our love for God, not in order to gain something for ourselves. And we truly worship when our love for God leads us to love other people, especially those whom life has beaten up and beaten down.

Put simply, if you go to the church, to the synagogue, or to the mosque, and then go out into the world to hate, oppress, misuse, abuse, manipulate, or take advantage of people, you aren’t worshiping.

The fifth-century preacher told the people that if they’d care for those whom the world disrespects and disregards, then their light would shine in the world’s darkness.

You may have one of those candles in a jar. As long as you leave the lid off the jar, the candle burns just fine. But put the lid back on the jar while the candle is burning, and the flame is immediately extinguished. That’s because oxygen fuels the fire, so without oxygen, the fire goes out and the light gives way to the darkness.

Love fuels our fire and keeps our light shining. If we give in to selfishness, hate, and cruelty, then we give way to the darkness. But if we keep loving in ways that lead us to serve, give, and share, then our light will keep burning brightly.

We overcome darkness with light. We overcome hate with love.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

MacArthur Park, Reconsidered

A few days ago, my wife Debra and I had the privilege of joining our beloved friends, college roommates, and fellow travelers Randy and Jennie Berry at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur to hear Jimmy Webb talk about and play and sing some of the wonderful songs he’s written during the course of his career.

And boy howdy, has Webb written some great songs.

He wrote three of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and my favorite Campbell recording, “Galveston.” He also wrote the Fifth Dimension’s hit “Up, Up, and Away,” Brooklyn Bridge’s “The Worst that Could Happen,” and Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know.” That list barely scratches the surface of the pile of songs Webb has written.

Another of Webb’s well-known songs is “MacArthur Park.” The original recording by actor Richard Harris went to #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1968. Waylon Jennings’s version won a Grammy award in 1969. Donna Summers’s disco version was a hit in 1978. Who’d have ever thought you could dance to “MacArthur Park”? Well, I couldn’t, because I can’t dance—but lots of people did.

Webb has caught a lot of grief over the years for “MacArthur Park.” Some people have said that the lyrics are over-the-top. Read the second verse and the refrain, and see what you think:

I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
The birds, like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers by the trees

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again
Oh, no!


As for me, I think the lyrics are beautifully written and their symbolism is majestic and fascinating.

Still, I confess to having poked a little fun at the song myself, although to be fair, I mainly joked about Richard Harris’s overly dramatic (in my estimation) rendition.

After seeing Webb perform, I found a 2014 Newsday article where he said that “MacArthur Park” is

just a song about a girlfriend of mine, Susie Horton, and this place on Wilshire Boulevard where we used to have lunch, which is called MacArthur Park. And the truth is that everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.

Webb also said that he wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” at about the same time, as the love affair was coming to an end.

But I didn’t know that background when I heard Webb sing “MacArthur Park,” so that’s not what caused me to conclude that the song really belongs to him.

It was the way he played and sang it. His rendition was every bit as dramatic as Richard Harris’s version, but it was more powerful, I think because it was so real. Maybe it’s because he sang it liked he had lived it, which he in fact had. Webb’s presentation of “MacArthur Park” was, in a word, authentic.

There are at least three lessons in this for all of us.

First, we should speak authentic words that come out of authentic lives.

Second, we should listen to those who do.

And third, we shouldn’t listen to those who don’t.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Wars and Rumors of Wars

War… What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Some of you will recognize those words, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, from Edwin Starr’s 1970 hit single “War.” Released while the war in Vietnam was still raging, it was a bold anti-war statement.

Maybe we need to listen to it again.

I was twelve years old in 1970 when the song was blasting from radios and jukeboxes, so the possibility of my being drafted was six years away, which at that age seemed so far in the future that I could scarcely imagine it. As things turned out, by the time I turned eighteen, the draft had been abolished. In fact, I didn’t even have to register for the draft, as no men born between March 29, 1957 and December 31, 1959 were required to do so.

I wish no one had to register for the draft. I wish we didn’t need military forces or weapons. I wish no American man or woman—or man or woman of any nation—would die in armed conflict ever again. I wish we had peace all over the world. I wish that wars never happened. I wish that nations would get along.

But I’m neither naïve nor stupid. I know I won’t get my wishes.

Nevertheless, I believe war should always be the last resort and never the first option. I believe that leaders of nations should do everything they can possibly do to work problems out without going to war.

Like the song says, war isn’t good for anything.

Well, it seems to be good for business.

This brings me to another line in the song “War”:

It ain't nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it's got one friend that's the undertaker.


War actually has lots of other friends. Way back in 1963, Mr. Dylan pointed out some of them in his song “Masters of War”:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.


War is big business. So is the preparation for war that takes place during peacetime.

In 2019, the United States spent $649 billion on defense, which is more than the next seven highest-spending countries (China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) combined. Large military contractors make a lot of money. In 2017, military arms manufacturers in the United States and other countries had almost $400 billion in weapons sales.

So I guess military contractors are friends of war too.

Now, as I said earlier, I’m not naïve. I realize that a strong defense is necessary to preserve peace and to discourage aggression by enemies. I’m grateful for our military personnel who keep us safe.

I’m also grateful for our intelligence services and diplomats who work behind the scenes to preserve peace and prevent war. I’m furthermore grateful for government, non-government, American, and international organizations that work to address issues to improve the human conditions that, if not addressed, can lead to conflict.

Some evangelicals are also friends of war, particularly war in the Middle East. As far as I can tell, it’s a small subset of the evangelical world. But these folks think they’ll profit from war in an eternal way. They think that a war in the Middle East will help usher in the apocalypse, after which they’ll be riding high and sitting pretty.

Such thinking is wrong, foolish, dangerous, unbiblical, and sub-Christian. Christians serve the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We should do all we can to encourage and promote peace.

The drumbeats of war can get very loud. Let’s not let them drown out the melody of peace.

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Christmas Memory

I was born in 1958, so most of my childhood occurred during the 1960s.

Each Christmas Day in that decade followed a set schedule.

First, I would wake up very early in our little house on Memorial Drive in Barnesville. The house rule was that I had to wake my parents up before going into the living room to see what Santa Claus had brought me. This was so my father could arm himself with his Brownie 8mm movie camera, equipped with its panel of spotlights, to film the spectacle. We would then enter the place of wonder, where I would receive the first installment of my Christmas bounty.

Second, we would get dressed and go to the home of whichever Abbott was hosting my mother’s family’s Christmas celebration. If we were hosting it, we’d get dressed and stay home. After enjoying a delicious Christmas lunch, we’d open presents, and I would receive the second installment of my Christmas bounty.

Third, we would drive the ten or so miles to Yatesville, where we would slide into the Ruffin family’s Christmas celebration that was already well underway at MawMaw and PawPaw’s house. We’d open presents, and I would receive the third installment of my Christmas bounty.

By late in the afternoon, I was antsy to get home so I could play with all the stuff I’d had to leave there that morning. We’d say our goodbyes to whatever Ruffins remained and get in the car.

Then Mama would say, “Now Mike, we have to go see Mr. and Mrs. Lashley before we go home. Be sure to thank them for the gift they’ll give you.”

We’d go spend a little while with that elderly couple. They were nice. They would indeed give me a present, and they’d exchange presents with my parents. I noticed that they seemed particularly happy to see my mother.

At some point—I don’t recall how many times we visited them before I wondered enough to inquire—I asked my father why we went to visit Mr. and Mrs. Lashley.

Somewhere along the line I had heard about my mother having been engaged to a fellow named Buster before she married my father. Buster was killed in France in the days following the Normandy invasion, so he and my mother never married.

When I asked about Mr. and Mrs. Lashley, my father said, “Do you remember hearing about your mother’s fiancé, Buster? He was Buster Lashley. Mr. and Mrs. Lashley are his parents.”

I’m sure I responded with something deep, like, “How about that” or “Huh.”

But I’ve given it more thought over the years.

I’ve thought about a woman, who happened to be my mother, and her husband visiting the parents of the man she was once going to marry. I think about them doing so two decades after he died. I assume they had been doing so every year since they got married in 1946.

I think about how as they chatted in the early evening on those Christmas Days, they must have all thought, at least a little, about what might have been, but wasn’t, and about what might not have been, but was.

I wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Lashley sat there thinking, “It could have been Sara and Buster. We wish it had been.” I wonder if they also thought, “We’re glad it’s Sara and Champ.”

I wonder if all of them thought about how the horrible and the wonderful, the painful and the blissful, and the losses and the gains exist side-by-side in this life, and how if you’ll just hold on, hoping, trusting, and trying, putting one foot in front of the other, it will all somehow, someway, work out in the long run.

I don’t know if they all thought about any of that.

But I, the son of Champ and Sara Ruffin, who could not have existed had they not married, sure do think about it.