Saturday, December 22, 2012

It’s Almost Time for “Merry Christmas!”

I confess to having slipped up a few times since December 2 and saying “Merry Christmas,” which I intended not to do.

That sounds weird, I know, given that so many of my Christian friends are making a point of saying “Merry Christmas” in an effort to “keep Christ in Christmas” and to combat what they see as the increasing secularization of Christmas symbolized by the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays.”

Don’t get me wrong; we have done our best to get ready for Christmas at our house, considering that our month started with our son’s wedding a thousand miles away in the mysterious and wonderful land of Wisconsin. The house is decorated; the stockings are hung; there are presents under the tree; the kitchen is filled with cookies and candy. Santa Claus is coming to town and, given that he has never missed our house, I’m sure he’ll show up again this year.

On Christmas Eve we will, like we do on every Christmas Eve, enjoy a nice supper of soup and sandwiches, spill out the contents of our stockings (no matter what else is in mine, it’s the Reese’s Christmas trees to which I look forward the most), watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and go to bed. On Christmas Day we will, like we do on every Christmas Day, open our presents, eat a turkey dinner that can’t be beat (my favorite dish is the Kentucky Corn Pudding—thanks, Patty Fasey, wherever you are), and hang around being family.

Santa Claus will be safely back at the North Pole, Blitzen and crew will be having a much needed rest, our Christmas tree will suddenly look empty and sad, we’ll all own a little more stuff, and Christmas will be over.

Only it won’t be. Not really. Not at all.

That’s because on the Christian calendar, December 24 is the last day of Advent, the last day of our four-week long preparation for Christmas, and December 25 is only the first day of Christmas. Our Christmas observance lasts for twelve days and does not end until January 5.

The embrace of this fact by more of us would be a very significant and helpful development for several reasons.

First, it would lessen the temptation to let ourselves get caught up in the so-called “War on Christmas.” The truth is that the weeks leading up to Christmas Day in America have been and will remain swallowed up by the cultural and commercial aspects of the season which frankly, when participated in with moderation, are rather enjoyable. As I have written previously, Christians would be well served to take the Season of Advent, those four weeks that focus on quietly and seriously anticipating the coming of Christ in all of the ways that he comes, more seriously.

Second, it would set aside significant time to celebrate Christmas when we have time to celebrate Christmas. For many of us, the days following Christmas Day involve a slowing of the pace and a reduction in activity. We have some time to reflect. Let’s use the Twelve Days of Christmas to spend some time reflecting on the coming of Christ as Christmas. This year, our church, like many churches, produced an Advent devotional guide that included a reading for each day of Advent. Our church’s booklet is also a Christmas devotional guide since we included readings for each of the twelve days of Christmas. This is not about leaving our Christmas decorations up until Epiphany (although that’s not a bad idea); it is about adopting some disciplines that will help us to spend some time and energy reflecting on the meaning of Christmas.

Third, it would encourage a renewed emphasis on the reality of incarnation. Incarnation means the embodiment, the taking on of flesh, by the spiritual or the divine. Christmas is about God putting on flesh in the baby Jesus. As Paul says of Christ, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). The Incarnation, in other words, gave the second person of the Trinity the opportunity and privilege of serving God by serving others and loving others by giving himself up, even to the point of giving his very life.

The emphasis on the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is one we need to reclaim because it reminds us that the essence of God’s love is in service and self-sacrifice. We who are the Church are the Body of Christ and so we are to continue the incarnational ministry of a presence in the world that is servant-oriented and sacrifice-based.

As of December 25 and through January 5, let’s be intentional about saying “Merry Christmas” to each other, but let’s do so knowing that it is code for “Remember that we are the Body of Christ, that we are to serve, and that we are to give ourselves away.”

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Do you ever wonder? I do.

I wonder how it just so happened that my parents and my good wife Debra’s parents, not to mention all of my ancestors and all of her ancestors, got together and married and then got together and produced children that ended up, way down the line, being us. The odds of everything and everyone working together in ways that would lead to us are astronomical—yet here we are.

I wonder how it just so happened that she and I, who had never heard of each other’s hometowns, both decided to attend Mercer University and both made that decision only after considerable influence was exerted on us by people who cared so deeply about our futures that they thought that they knew better than we did about the direction we should take—and they were right.

I wonder how it just so happened that late one fall afternoon in 1976 we ended up standing in line together to get our pictures taken for the college annual and I noticed that she was cute; while I don’t know what she noticed about me I suspect it was that I was awkward, which I proved in the way that I asked her out, in the first date that I planned, in the way that I dressed for it, and no doubt in the things I said.

I wonder how it just so happened that, five years after we married, we combined our respective gene pools to produce a son who was born on February 21, 1984 and whom we named Joshua. He was our first-born.

I wonder how it just so happened that, a couple of years before that, the partners in a couple in Madison, Wisconsin were combining their gene pools to produce their third child and first and only daughter, whom they named Michelle.

I wonder how it just so happened that, following various educational, extra-curricular, and vocational pursuits, Joshua and Michelle both decided to be writers.

I wonder how it just so happened that, although he was offered a similar fellowship at other places, Joshua chose to attend Georgia College & State University to pursue his Master of Fine Arts. I wonder furthermore how it just so happened that, after growing up in Wisconsin, attending college in Minnesota, and serving two years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, Michelle decided to pursue her MFA in Milledgeville, Georgia, too.

I wonder how it just so happened that Michelle and Joshua decided that their shared love for life, literature, family, good food, good beer, exercise, and cats—and each other—could form the foundation for a life together.

I wonder how it just so happens that they will stand before God, family, and friends this Sunday afternoon in the Senate Parlor Room of the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison and become husband and wife.

I think a lot about that scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest says, "I don't know if Mama’s right or it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floatin' around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it's both; maybe both is happening at the same time."

So if somebody asks me is it that God has plan for each of us or that we form our own destiny by the choices we make, I will answer “Yes.”

I’m not even sure I’d like to know how it all “just so happens.”

The beauty of life, I believe, is found in the wonder of it all…

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Two Reasons to Take Advent Seriously

[This is my church newsletter column for this week.]

This Sunday is the first Sunday of the season of Advent. The word “Advent” means “arrival” or “coming”; during the four weeks of Advent we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the second coming of Christ in glory, and the continuing and new ways that Jesus will choose to come to us right here and right now. Advent, then, is about watching and waiting; it is about trusting and hoping; it is about looking and listening.

I want to encourage you and your family to give special attention to the observance of Advent. I do so for several reasons.

First, Advent is a particularly Christian observance. You are likely thinking, “Now, wait a minute—Christmas is a Christian holy day.” Of course it is. But Christmas has also been co-opted by the culture at large so that for many people the secular and commercial aspects of it are much more important than the religious aspects; as Donald Heinz observed, “Christmas without religion is now more imaginable than Christmas without shopping” [Christmas: Festival of Incarnation(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), p. x]. It is not surprising that such is the case for non-Christians but it is rather shocking that it appears to be true for many professed followers of Christ.

Advent is different. There are no secular Advent carols; there are no Advent presents; there are no Advent sales; there is no countdown of shopping days until Advent; there are no Advent television shows or movies. If we choose to focus on Advent, nothing competes directly for our attention because only followers of Christ pay any attention at all to Advent. Advent, then, gives us a means to give appropriate focus to Jesus in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Second, Advent encourages an alternative to pre-Christmas frenzy. One of the reasons that the observance of Advent runs so counter to the flow of our culture is that it is all about waiting, an activity at which our society is not practiced and that it thus does not embrace. Our Christmas practices, fueled by unrealistic expectations and by barely bridled materialism, lead us to approach Christmas at a frenetic pace that results in exhaustion and disappointment.

The observance of Advent, on the other hand, reminds us that life is not finally about what we do but about what God has done, will do, and is doing. It trains us to wait and to watch, to always be on the lookout for how God is acting. Advent keeps our focus on the grace, mercy, and love of God and thus teaches us to remember to trust in God. Very importantly, Advent slows us down and teaches us to pay attention.

So during this Advent season I hope and trust that you and your family will participate in Advent worship and will spend some time at home each day reflecting on our coming Savior.

Let’s slow down. Let’s wait. Let’s watch. Let’s listen…

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

With Thanksgiving Day upon us, I’d like to share with you a few of the many things for which I am thankful this year.

1. I am thankful for my wife and children, who love, encourage, and inspire me; I am also thankful for the opportunity to be a friend to those who have little or no family or who are estranged from their family.

2. I am thankful for my sound health; I am also thankful for the privilege of being with and praying for those whose health is unsound.

3. I am thankful for good food to eat, for clean water to drink, and for access to good health care; I am also thankful for those who are working to make those necessities available to people who don’t have them and for the opportunity to help those who are trying to help.

4. I am thankful for the privilege to live in a free nation in which we try to balance individual liberty and corporate responsibility; I am also thankful for nations that are trying to grow toward such freedom and for people who are working for change in those nations whose leaders have no interest in such freedom.

5. I am thankful for a church family with which I can worship God, with which I can share sorrow and joy, and with which I can bear witness to Jesus Christ in our community; I am also thankful for the privilege of being the church in the world so that we can share the love, mercy, peace, and grace of God with people in need of those blessings.

6. I am thankful for this beautiful world in which we live; I am also thankful for the opportunity of doing what I can to preserve that beauty for future generations.

7. I am thankful for the grace of God that loves me just as I am; I am also thankful for the way that grace nudges me to love others just as they are.

8. I am thankful for the great blessing of knowing and following Jesus Christ every day of my life; I am also thankful for those who follow along with me, whether or not I know it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

21 Observations on my 54th Birthday

I’m writing these words on the morning of my 54th birthday and I’m in a reflective mood; I’m thinking about what I have learned in my five and a half decades of living. Here’s a list, in no particular order:

1. Baseball is still the greatest sport in the world but I have a suspicion that rugby is even better.
2. Some, but not most, of what I was afraid would happen has happened; most, but not all, of what I was afraid would never happen has happened.
3. There is pressure in diving deep and pleasure in staying shallow; both have their time and place.
4. Following Jesus is hard; not following Jesus is harder.
5. I owe a lot to a lot of people but I owe everything to only One.
6. Money isn’t everything; it is, however, something.
7. Lingering regret comes from short-sightedness while increasing gratitude comes from a broader perspective; God has a way of working God’s purposes out through and despite what we do or don’t do.
8. Most of what I really need to know I have learned from my father, my mother, Preacher Bill, Preacher Key, Dr. Giddens, my wife, my children, and Uncle Johnny; the rest I have learned from Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Brennan Manning, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen.
9. Small towns are better than big cities and vice versa.
10. I have a song.
11. German chocolate cake is worth waiting a year for.
12. Prayer, like breath, is life.
13. I suspect that for every act of grace that has been extended to me of which I am aware there are at least three of which I am unaware; I am grateful for them all.
14. I went into the ministries of preaching, praying, teaching, and writing because I wanted to engage in a life-long quest for truth; if I were not a minister I would be an astronomer—for the same reason.
15. Movies filmed in black and white are as a rule superior to those filmed in color.
16. The Holy Spirit will not leave me alone; most of the time I am glad.
17. I could do a better job of helping people overcome their self-centeredness if I could do a better job of overcoming mine.
18. It’s hard enough trying to figure out the people who live in the same town I do; it would be mighty arrogant of me to think I can understand folks who live on the other side of the world.
19. Life is simple. And complicated.
20. I will always like the Monkees.
21. I am me. Thanks be to God.

Friday, August 24, 2012

American Capitalist Christian? Or Christian Capitalist American? Or Capitalist American Christian?

I am a natural born American citizen; I am practically a natural born Christian, too.

I was, after all, born on American soil to American parents who took me to church for the first time when I was ten days old.

My growing up years were marked by a seemingly natural and comfortable alliance between love for God and love for country. At Vacation Bible School we pledged allegiance to the United States and Christian flags with absolutely no sense of irony. It was made clear to me that good Christians supported their country, even if its actions ran counter to the teachings of Jesus.

I was born in that little window that kept me from even having to register for the draft, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I ever had to kill people because of my devotion to country I would be honored whereas if I refused to kill people because of my devotion to Christ I would be vilified. That’s just one (and an extreme one, at that) example of the tensions that can arise for someone trying to be both a faithful Christian and a faithful American.

Over the years I began to try to think seriously and critically about those tensions; specifically, I began to think about how I and others could appropriately live in America as Christian citizens.

The position that I developed could be summarized as follows: “A Christian’s allegiance to Jesus Christ should always come before any other allegiance, including the allegiance to country.” To put it negatively, “A Christian should never put being American ahead of being Christian.”

Things get complicated pretty quickly, though.

Take, for example, the matter of a Christian’s stance toward American economic policies and practices.

It seems to me that many Christians in America are much more “American” when it comes to economics than they are “Christian.” I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but we all know that the heart and soul of the American economic system is capitalism. According to Wikipedia, “Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit. Competitive markets, wage labor, capital accumulation, voluntary exchange, and personal finance are also considered capitalistic.”

Ideally, everyone has the chance to profit in and from such a system. If I operate a successful business, everyone associated with my business (shareholders, employees, vendors, etc.) might reap the benefits. And, if I am a Christian operating a business, then ideally grace, love, and generosity will be churned out along with profits.

Still, it is difficult to make a case that capitalism is a Christian system or is even particularly compatible with Christian practice, given that it is based on competitiveness that all too often degenerates into making a profit at any cost, even if that cost is a human one, and into an atmosphere of greed and selfishness.

It was Jesus who said, “You cannot serve God and money” and successful capitalism practically necessitates, when push comes to shove, having God be the one eliminated from the equation if the choice has to be made.

It seems to me, too, that many professed followers of Christ who put capitalism ahead of their Christianity do not take seriously enough the very clear bias of God, as God is revealed in the Bible, toward the poor and the helpless.

Now, I do think that many folks sincerely believe that, left to itself and to the hard work of business owners and operators and of their employees, the free market will eventually create a situation in which the rising waters of profit will float all boats.

I also know that many people try very hard to participate in the capitalist system in a way that honors Christ; I know that many such folks do everything they can to be honest, fair, and charitable in ways that they make and invest their profits.

Some of us find ourselves wanting an American society that cares for the poor and the helpless as much as, and maybe even more than, it does for the preservation of wealth (although, in the interest of full disclosure, let me make it clear than I am doing what I can to preserve enough wealth to be able to eat after I retire, if I ever do).

I’m not convinced that we couldn’t have it both ways—that is, that we couldn’t foster a robust business climate that still finds a way, through the combined efforts of government, churches, and non-profits, to protect and care for the poor and helpless among us. I furthermore believe that Christians could and should be in the forefront of such an effort.

My thoughts on this subject are complicated by my belief, as expressed elsewhere, that a nation is not capable of being Christian, and thus to talk about a “Christian America” is to employ a misnomer. I am aware of the tension between that conviction and my desire to have my nation display in its policies and practices the emphases that characterize basic Christianity, namely, “to care for orphans and widows” (James 1:27) and robust prophetic religion (note the consistent emphasis of the Hebrew prophets on the responsibilities of the “haves” toward the “have nots,” of the 1% to the 99%, if you will).

Having said that, though, I think it’s fair to observe that what I want my nation to practice is basic kindness, fairness, and compassion, emphases that bleed across religious lines and indeed are a part of just being decent human beings. So yes, “secular humanists” could and can participate, too.

This much I know: if we follow Christ, our priority is our faithfulness to him and to his ways, ways that are best described by the words “service” and “sacrifice,” words that are difficult to apply and concepts that can be difficult to live out if we buy whole-heartedly into any other way, even if it is the American way.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Do Your Choices Tell You?

(My weekly column in our church newsletter is called "When You Stop a & Think About It." What follows is this week's column.)

A friend and I were discussing some movies we had seen recently when another friend standing with us chimed in to say, “You two must have a lot more free time on your hands than I do since you have time to watch so many movies.” I responded, “How did the Braves do last night?” He said, “They won!” I asked, “How often do you watch the Braves?” He proudly replied, “I never miss a game!” I didn’t do the math for him but, if I watched two movies a week I invested around five hours in them while if he watched six Braves games a week he invested about twenty hours in them.

Of course, I really couldn’t say much since on those nights when I wasn’t watching a movie I was probably watching the Braves, too; I respected my friend’s devotion to the Braves. The difference between us was defined by his belief that my watching movies was a waste of time.

Priorities and choices—so much of life is about priorities and choices. The truth is that, while some things are thrust upon us, we all in large part do what we want to do. We choose what is important and we give our time and energy to those things.

While every Christian must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, figure out for herself exactly what her discipleship should look like, we can name some elements that can and should characterize all of our lives.

One element that should characterize our lives is prayer. The longer I live the more I value the practice of prayer. How much time do we spend opening our lives up to God, who wants to commune with us, in prayer? How much time do we give to developing our relationship with God?

Another element is worship. Worshiping God along with other members of the Body of Christ is to me akin to eating a meal with other hungry people. Do we prioritize corporate worship?

Yet another necessary element of the Christian life is service. The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love the Lord our God with everything we are while the second is to love our neighbor as we love our self. To love our neighbor is to serve our neighbor in whatever ways we can. We are called by our Savior especially to serve those who are the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. How much of our time and other resources do we invest in helping others?

This Sunday morning we’ll think together about another important element of the Christian life that I suspect most of us neglect: solitude.

When you stop and think about it, we do what we want to do. What do our lives reveal about what we truly value in our lives?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Prayer for the Sunday after the Aurora, CO Shootings

(We observed a moment of silence to remember the victims and their families; I then prayed the following prayer.)

O God,

Once again we have been confronted with the horror of the killing and wounding of a large number of people, this time in Aurora, Colorado. As we ponder the numbers—12 killed and 59 wounded—help us to remember that each one of those numbers represents a person whose death or injury has left their family and friends grief-stricken and in turmoil.

Lord, have mercy on those families.
Christ, have mercy on that community.
Lord, have mercy on us.

We pray for the one who carried out these murders. We ask for him the related miracles of healing and forgiveness that come only by your grace. We pray that the kind of darkness that overcame his soul will never overcome ours.

This tragedy, like all such tragedies, causes us to ask hard and challenging questions. Help us, O God, not to hide from confronting questions that we need to confront. We readily acknowledge the sin and sickness that are present in one who would carry out such an act. Is there also sin and sickness in our nation, in our culture, in our mindset, in our priorities, in our communities and even in our churches that help to contribute to such an event?

Is there something in our hearts? Is there something in my heart?

If our asking of such questions and if our seeking of your Spirit lead us to conclusions that challenge and trouble us, help us to deal with those conclusions honestly and courageously.

On your grace and on your grace alone can we rely in this time and in all times.

Thank you for hearing our prayers.
Thank you for seeing our hearts.
Thank you for healing our hurts.
Thank you for forgiving our sins.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How About a Hit Behind the Runner Derby?

I did not watch the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby this year.

Frankly, I get bored watching major league sluggers hit booming shots off batting practice pitches. Besides, I worry that one of those high fly balls that doesn’t make it over the fence will bonk one of the kids trying to catch them right on the noggin.

So I decided to go “back, back, back, back, back” to my study and do something productive, like write another bad song.

Home runs are certainly impressive and I guess that tape-measure home runs are even more impressive. It’s interesting, though, that in a real game, a home run that barely clears the wall counts for one run just like one that lands in McCovey Cove or on Waveland Avenue.

Do you remember those commercials that Cy Young Award-winning and future first ballot Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were in a few years ago in which, after they saw Heather Locklear admiring Mark McGwire’s blasts, they tried to become power hitters because, as they said, “Chicks dig the long ball”? Well, dudes seem to dig it, too, because everybody loves to see home runs hit.

Thus is explained the popularity of the Home Run Derby, which has turned into a fourteen-hour ESPN spectacular.

A home run is a beautiful thing.

There are things that happen in a baseball game, though, that are even more beautiful. Let me name just two.

First, there is the sacrifice bunt, which occurs when there is a runner on base and the batter bunts the ball, fully expecting to be thrown out, in order to advance the runner to the next base.

The sacrifice bunt is often executed when a runner is on first base or runners are on first and second base with no outs; it is often used also when a runner is on first or second and the pitcher is at the plate with no outs or one out. The purpose of the bunt is to move the runner or runners into a position from which they can more easily score.

It’s called a “sacrifice” bunt because the batter is willingly and intentionally giving himself up because the situation calls for such a sacrifice for the sake of the team. The batter is not penalized statistically for a sacrifice bunt because an at bat that results in a successful sacrifice is not counted as an official at bat.

The second kind of hitting display that is even more beautiful than a home run and that may be even more beautiful than a sacrifice bunt occurs when the batter hits behind the runner in order to move him over.

This happens when a runner is on second base with no outs and the batter does everything he can to hit the ball behind the runner, that is, to hit the ball on the ground to the right or first base side of the infield. If the batter successfully does that, the runner will advance to third where he will be with one out and with the ability to score in any number of ways, including as the result of a base hit, a sacrifice fly, a wild pitch, a passed ball, or a balk.

What makes hitting behind the runner an even more beautiful play than the sacrifice bunt, which is a truly beautiful baseball play, is the fact that it constitutes a true sacrifice; the at bat counts and so the hitter’s batting average is negatively impacted. He has truly given himself up for the good of the team.

Both the fireworks and the crowd go off when a home run is hit; the reaction is much more subdued when a hitter lays down a sacrifice bunt or moves a runner over by successfully hitting behind him.

But watch the reaction of the players and coaches—they know.

Church members can create a lot of stress when they expect worship and church life to be characterized constantly by the blast of long balls and of fireworks; pastors and church leaders carry around a lot of stress when they feel like they are expected to turn every game around with one crushing blow.

Pastors and other worship leaders are susceptible to the seductive cheers of the crowd that can come when they seem to have put on an awesome display of power.

I sometimes wonder how many church members can see the value—the indispensability, really—of the subtle, quiet, regular giving up of self that characterizes real worship, real preaching, real ministry, and real Christian practice; I sometimes wonder how many church members notice the sacrifices that are so often made by their leaders for the sake of the faith, of the church, and of the Lord Jesus Christ who came to serve and to give his up his life.

Every great once in a while, someone will tell me that I hit a home run with a sermon.

I take that for what it’s worth.

I’d take it as a real compliment if someone were to say as they shake my hand at noon on some Sunday, “Way to hit behind the runner, Preacher.”

Sunday, June 24, 2012


My wife Debra and I spent three nice days in Ft. Worth, Texas last week attending the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

We stayed in the Ft. Worth Hilton, which once upon a time was known as the Hotel Texas. We learned that it was in that hotel that President and Mrs. Kennedy spent the night of November 21, 1963. The thought that we may have walked where President Kennedy walked as he headed out to live the last day of his life on the morning of November 22 was a bit overwhelming.

While waiting for our flight out of the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport on Saturday, we were told that the flight would be delayed because the plane had not yet arrived. That made sense, given that attempting to fly without an airplane is dangerous business.

Our final destination was Jacksonville but we had to make a connection in Atlanta. The comfortable hour-long layover that we anticipated felt less and less comfortable as we waited for the plane to arrive and then, once it did, to be boarded.

There was one entertaining moment during our wait at the gate, which came when one of the gate attendants announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, if any of you checked in from home for this flight and were assigned a seat in rows 42-45, please come to the check-in desk. Those rows do not exist on this aircraft.” We laughed, so obviously our seats were elsewhere.

The fellow sitting across from us in the gate area laughed with us. He’s Italian. Earlier, as he ended a phone call he said, “Buona. Ciao!” Later, Debra and I remarked on how we Southerners end phone calls. “Okay then. See you later!” “Well all right. ‘Bye now!” I like being a Southerner, but I think I’ll start saying “Ciao!” Of course, some folks will think I’m asking them to lunch.

We did finally board the plane (once it got there, sure enough without Rows 42-45) and it took off some 45 minutes later than scheduled. We disembarked in Atlanta at 4:00 p.m.; our connecting flight to Jacksonville was scheduled to depart at 4:20. We arrived at Gate A-5 and needed to get to Gate A-21 so we walked very fast, along the way knocking over assorted slow-moving pedestrians who didn’t have sense enough to walk on the right-hand side, only to learn upon arriving at Gate A-21 and finding a large mob gathered there that our flight was not yet boarding.

We then heard this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, our flight will depart about 30 minutes later than scheduled because our flight crew has not yet arrived.”

This allowed us to worry less about our main concern, which was of course the question of whether, even if we did make the flight, our luggage would.

After a few minutes the flight crew arrived. As I watched them walk by, I said to Debra, “That’s one of our flight attendants. And there’s another one.”

Yep, we were waiting for the same crew that we had flown with from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Atlanta.

My first thought was, “Well, we didn’t need to hurry, after all.”

I felt bad about all those people we had bowled over, but they really should have been walking on the right side.

My second thought was, “What a coincidence! Out of all the Delta flights that come into and leave Atlanta, what are the odds that we’d have the same crew on both legs of our flight?”

It was, of course, just a coincidence.

The theme for the 2012 CBF General Assembly (which, you may recall, is the reason we went to Ft. Worth) was “Infinitely More” based on Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Dr. Daniel Vestal, retiring Executive Coordinator for CBF, preached a very challenging sermon from that text in his sermon on Friday night.

For several years I had used an Upper Room publication entitled A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants in my daily devotions. In recent months, though, I had switched over to Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, a work made up of several thick volumes. For practical reasons, then, I took the smaller and thus easier to transport A Guide to Prayer with me to Ft. Worth.

On Thursday morning, our first morning in Ft. Worth, I opened the book to the prayer guide for the week and found this invocation: “Almighty God, through the power of your Holy Spirit you enable us to do and be more than we can think or imagine. Come now, dwell within us, and make us strong to do your work and will. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

On Saturday morning, our last morning in Ft. Worth, I opened the book again and found that the Scripture reading assigned for the day was Ephesians 3:14-21.

It was, of course, all just a coincidence…

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Things I Learned How to Do from my Father

1. To love God in a radical but sane way.

2. To give.

3. To be grateful for my job.

4. To be faithful to my family and friends.

5. To grill the best barbequed chicken in the world.

6. To laugh.

7. To treat women, especially the one to whom you’re married, with deep respect.

8. To fail with dignity and to succeed with grace.

9. To give my children room to find themselves.

10. To live so that I’ll be missed.

I’ll always be grateful to Champ Lee Ruffin (July 25, 1921-May 27, 1979)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Greater Risk?

A few years ago our son Joshua had just started college on a Theatre Arts scholarship.

His mother was concerned about him.

She was concerned like any mother or father would be; she wanted him to find the best direction for his life and to follow the path that would make the best use of his gifts and allow him to make the best contribution possible to this old world.

I was sharing her concerns with a friend of ours who was and is a successful professional and whose own children were on a track that would likely take them into successful careers in the business world.

When I said that my good wife was a little concerned about Joshua finding the right way for him, our friend responded, "If one of my children was pursuing the path he is, I'd be worried, too."

I've been thinking about what she said for almost ten years now.

I think I understand what she meant; she meant that (a) the artistic life is a difficult one in which to make a living, (b) the artistic world is filled with, shall we say, "offbeat" people, and (c) the artistic life can be filled with temptations that can threaten the very soul of a young person.

The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've come to wonder what kind of career path, when you evaluate the situation from the perspective of Jesus' life and teachings, puts a young woman or man at the most risk.

Granted, Jesus did have some harsh things to say about actors--that's the root meaning of "hyprocrite" and Jesus didn't cotton to folks acting like they were different--and especially better--than they in fact were.

But Jesus sure had a lot to say about people who put pursuit of the dollar--or the denarius, if you need to be a literalist--at the heart of their life and who make it the point of their life's work.

He did not say, after all, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an actor or actress to get into the kingdom of heaven." It was not, after all, an actor who said, "I have more awards than I know what to do with; I know what I will do--I will tear down my awards room and build a bigger one and say to myself, 'Eat, drink, and be merry.'"

Now, please don't hear me wrong. There are many people who are successful in business who also keep their priorities in the right order; there are many people in the business world who make lots of money and who still maintain their Christian love, their generosity, and their integrity.

Indeed, I have often told the Lord that I believe it is possible to be simultaneousy rich and righteous and that I'd appreciate the chance to prove it. Clearly, the Lord does not share my confidence in me.

Still, from the perspective of Jesus as it is revealed to us in the Gospels, there may be no greater risk to the souls of our children, or to our own souls, than putting the accumulation of wealth first in our lives--which let me again hasten to say is not the goal of everyone who becomes a stockbroker or banker or construction contractor or merchant or you name it. The great risk lies in the temptation, in the lure of money and of the supposed power that comes with it.

So, if your son or daughter wants to be an actor or painter or dancer or singer, don't sweat it too much. Their soul could be at greater risk if they go into one of the more "conventional" professions.

By the way, it all worked out ok for us. Joshua decided not to be an actor after all.

He's a poet...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Scripture's Truth

Christians affirm the truth--another good word is "trustworthiness"--of Scripture.

Evangelical Christians, of which I consider myself one, take it very seriously.

But do we think about the truth of Scripture in the right way, by which I mean in the way that God intends and in the way that Scripture itself leads us to think about it?

Most of us, in practice if not in carefully thought out theory, assign different levels of authority to different parts of Scripture. We just seem to know, whether or not we've ever studied hermeneutics and theology, that some random law in Leviticus doesn't have the same binding authority on us on this side of Jesus Christ as a saying of Jesus does--although we can be selective in which Old Testament "laws" we want to enforce and don't want to enforce.

Most of us would also affirm, although we might want to have much discussion over what it means, that since Jesus Christ was God with us and thus the epitome of God's revelation of God's self to us, that Jesus is the heart and center of Scripture.

If Jesus Christ is the epitome of God's self-revelation to humanity and if he is that to which all of Scripture points and testifies, then it stands to reason, it seems to me, that we should read and interpret Scripture through the lens of Jesus.

That position has clear if complicated ramifications for how we read the Hebrew Bible.

Today's question, though, has to do with the New Testament.

Given that the four Gospels offer a witness to Christ that is simultaneously consistent and diverse, and given that the letters of Paul and of the other New Testament writers offer testimony that, while clearly motivated by a desire to preach Christ and to apply the good news of Jesus to different situations, nonetheless reveals the realities of the struggle to do so--a struggle in which we continue to engage--might Scripture's second greatest truth, after its greatest truth of bearing witness to Jesus, be in how it bears witness to the honest, evolving, difficult, and messy process of trying to be Christ's presence in the real world?

Alongside the popular motto of "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it" maybe we should place this one: "The truth of Scripture is found in the model it offers of how to wrestle in an ongoing way with the meaning of Jesus Christ and with the meaning of being his followers."

Granted, it won't fit on a bumper sticker.

Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit to help us...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Non-Viral Preaching

Have you ever noticed that videos of good, sound, biblical, compassionate, empathetic, gracious, loving, humble preaching never go viral? I wonder why that is...

Ten Things You Should Know (But May Not) About Your Pastor

1. She/he doubts.

2. She/he believes.

3. She/he wonders.

4. She/he searches.

5. She/he cares.

6. She/he bleeds.

7. She/he cries.

8. She/he breaks.

9. She/he limps.

10. She/he knows.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sub-Christian Church?

Jesus said that we fulfill the greatest commandment when we love God with all we are and we fulfill the second greatest one when we love our neighbor as ourself.

Does a church that does not focus the vast majority of its energy, resources, time, efforts, and "programming" on fostering those two realities in our lives deserve to be described as "Christian"?

And if we are not about those two main things, what are we about?

If My People

It is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Is it also one of the most misused?

The context in 2 Chronicles is that Solomon has just finished the dedication of the recently completed temple of the Lord.

Taking the verse literally and taking the context seriously (and I recognize the complexity of "context," given that Chronicles is a post-exilic work and so the priestly writers no doubt had the Second Temple in mind as they told this story while the story being told is set in the 10th Century BCE and has to do with the dedication of the First Temple), we must acknowledge the following:

1. The promises in this verse and in the surrounding verses assume a nation in which the lines between the "people" and the "nation state" are fine if not non-existent and

2. That nation is pre-Christian era Israel and no other nation.

Is it possible for any other nation state to apply the promises made to pre-Christian era Israel to itself?

It seems to me that many people in my context make a too easy and likely inappropriate leap to apply this verse to the United States so that "my people" refers to American Christians (and anyone who will come on board with them) and "their land" refers to America. People living in other nations may make the same leap.

So, to take the verse literally and to take its context seriously seems to mean that it must be applied only to ancient Israel.

Still, being in our Bibles, we want and need to apply it to our time.

How can we with integrity and appropriateness do so?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flat Bible

My late great professor and mentor, Dr. Howard P. Giddens, once commented on a particular pastor's preaching this way: "I don't much care for his 'flat Bible' approach." We talked about what he meant by that and I came away thinking about the following possibilities about which I am, thirty-something years later, still thinking.

1. Perhaps every part of the Bible does not have equal authority.

2. Or, perhaps some parts of the Bible carry a different kind of authority than do other parts.

3. If either of those first statements is true, how does one determine what kind of authority to attribute to a particular text?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Changes Coming to On the Jericho Road

Dear Readers,

When I started posting at On the Jericho Road in January 2007 my stated purpose, which has appeared at the top of the blog from Day 1, was that I wanted it to be "the place where Michael Ruffin asks questions, raises issues, makes observations and seeks help in trying to figure it all out so that together we can maybe, just maybe, do something about it."

Very quickly, though, the blog evolved into a home for my sermons and for essays on various subjects. I became aware early on that other sites might want to pick up my work (special thanks is due here to my friends at who carried the third post I ever wrote and who have consistently used my work over the years) and so I felt it necessary to produce more polished and less open-ended items than I had at first envisioned.

I now want to return to my original vision for On the Jericho Road as a place where questions are asked, issues are raised, and observations are made, all with a view toward our working together to find ways to think about, talk about, write about, and even do something about the myriad difficulties facing our world.

I suspect that sometimes I will still post full essays here but my intention is regularly to post brief comments and questions that will hopefully generate discussion. The topics with which we will deal could be classified under such headings as theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and moral/social issues.

Let me say a few things about the discussions I hope we will have.

First, I intend for this to be a safe place where anyone can express any opinion or ask any question.

Second, I do not have all the answers. I hope we will work at developing our thought processes and at having civil discourse about serious issues.

Third, our discussions will take place through the comments function of the blog. While the blog posts will be linked to Facebook, I will not discuss them there.

Fourth, in order to comment you must identify yourself. I have the comments function set not to allow anonymous commenting. We will own what we say.

Fifth, my sermons, as well as essays on preaching, will now appear on my blog This Preaching Thing.

Sixth, essays dealing with American politics, including the intersection between those politics and American Christians, will appear at my blog A View from the Hinterland.

I hope you will join me for the discussion of important matters here at On the Jericho Road...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Resurrection Obedience

[A sermon based on 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day]

When I was a boy my mother would from time to time, as mothers are wont to do, tell me to do something. If I dared ask her why, she would in her kindness and patience give me a reason or two or five. But if I persisted in stalling through repeated requests that she justify her instruction, she would finally say, “Do it because I said so!”

Now, some mothers are mean; some mothers show their supposed love for their children through manipulation or abuse. My mother, though, like all good mothers, genuinely loved me and wanted the best for me—I knew it then and I know it, decades after her death, now. And I genuinely loved and wanted to please my mother, although I did at time have a funny way of showing it.

I loved my mother so I tried my best to obey her; my obedience to her was a response to her love for me and a reflection of my love for her.

My mother earned and deserved my obedience and my love. In a way, though, she also commanded and even demanded it. Oh, I don’t mean that she said, “I am your mother and you will love me!” I mean that the reality of her love and the example of her love were such that it seemed imperative that I respond to her love with mine; I didn’t see where I had much of a choice, given that I had the honor and privilege of being her son. Having the honor and privilege of being her son gave me the honor and privilege of obeying her.

I was my mother’s only child.

But I wasn’t really. Two years after I was born another son was born, this one named Stanley Abbott Ruffin. He was born with severe birth defects and, after being rushed to Eggleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, died after only twelve hours of life.

The only evidence that he lived at all is his small marble gravestone, the book on condolences that my mother saved and that I still have, and the home movie my father took of me standing among the flowers spread over his grave.

I have at times wondered how my life would have been different had Stan lived. What would it have been like to have a sibling, to have a brother? I have learned from observation about the deep love and affection that siblings can share as well as the deep rivalry and antipathy they can share—simultaneously, somehow. Stan was born of the same love that I was and was of the same bloodline and family tree that I was and because he was the child of my parents, whom I loved, I would have loved him, too.

Had Stan lived he would have been a special needs child. My parents would have cared for him faithfully and would have loved him unconditionally and I believe—again, as my response to their love and in obedience to the command inherent in their ways of loving and living—I would have cared for and loved him in the same way. And, given that we would have become orphans together when I was twenty and he was eighteen, I could have had responsibility for him now for over thirty years. It would have been, I imagine, very, very difficult. But I believe, although I’ll never know, that the love that my parents left with me and in me—that the life they left with me and in me—would have lived on in me and been lived out in me toward Stan.

As “different” from me as Stan would have been, he would have still been my brother; he would have been as fully the child of my parents as I am.

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, on the last night of his life, told his disciples the following things:

1. He had loved them as the Father had loved him;
2. They should abide in his love;
3. To keep his commandments was to abide in his love;
4. He had kept his Father’s commandments and had abided in his love;
5. Joy would be found in obeying Jesus by loving each other;
6. They should love one another as Jesus had loved them;
7. The greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends;
8. They were Jesus’ friends if they did what he commanded them;
9. They had status as his friends and so they had access to the workings of his heart;
10. He had chosen them as friends;
11. As they obeyed and loved they would receive from the Father what they needed to obey and love; and
12. He was telling them what to do so that they could love one another.

John the Elder tells us the following things that are related to the things that the Fourth Gospel tells us:

1. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God;
2. As children who love our Father we also love our Father’s other children;
3. We know we love our Father’s other children when we love God and obey God;
4. The love of God is to obey God’s commandments which is a demanding but not burdensome privilege because God gives us the faith we need;
5. The Spirit of God sent to us by the Father after the resurrection of the Crucified Jesus teaches us what we need to know about Jesus and thus about ourselves and about each other.

It is a good thing when we can carry, whether she is alive or dead, the best of our mother’s life and love with us. It is a great thing that we can carry, because he was dead but is now alive and because his Spirit is with us, the life and love of our Savior Jesus Christ with us. Jesus loved his followers—and he loves us—with all of our differences and in all of our strangeness. Jesus calls, commands, and shows us how to love each other with all of our differences and in all of strangeness.

My brother Stan, had he lived, would have been much different than I; he would have even been, by the majority standards of the world, strange. He would likely have had from birth some characteristics that would, on a literal reading of the Old Testament law—in which we thankfully don’t engage—have disqualified him from full participation in the worship of the Lord. But I have no doubt—not one—that my mother and father would have loved him as much as they loved me and I have no doubt—not one—that, even with all their shortcomings, my home church would have loved, embraced, cherished, and included my “different” brother in their community of grace.

We don’t, you see, get to choose our brothers and sisters; they come to us by the grace of God and so we love them by the grace of God. By grace through faith, by the Spirit of God, and by the presence of the resurrected Christ we love God and we love each other. What does it mean for us to love each other? Well, it begins with accepting each other, it moves through standing and sitting with each other through all of life, and it ends with giving ourselves up for each other no matter what it costs us.

The late theologian Jim Morrison (he of the Doors) once wrote, “People are strange when you're a stranger; faces look ugly when you're alone.” His point, I think (although with Morrison who ever really knew?) is that separation and alienation breed misunderstanding and even contempt. Our world is a place that thrives on categorization and stereotyping that leads to separation and alienation.

The church will be, if we obey Jesus by loving and if we love Jesus by obeying, fellowships that embrace each other in our difference and in our strangeness.

On November 11, 1960, an episode of the Twilight Zone aired that was entitled The Eye of the Beholder. In it, a woman is in a hospital, her face wrapped in bandages. We hear the voices of the doctors and nurses although their faces are shrouded in shadows. We learn that the woman, whose name is Janet Tyler, has just undergone the eleventh and final operation in an attempt to change her facial features so they will be like those dominant in her society. When the bandages are removed, the doctors and nurses express disappointment that the operation has failed and her face has experienced no change at all. When we see her face, we see that she is beautiful, from our perspective. When we see the faces of the doctors and nurses, we see that they are ugly, from our perspective, with twisted features and pig-like snouts.

Mothers love their children when they seem just right and when they seem all wrong. Regardless of how their children seem, regardless of how they are, mothers love them.

Jesus loves us all, just like we are—and the truth is that we are all, spiritually, mentally, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally speaking, a combination of fair beauty and pig snouts, aren’t we?

In this family of faith, grace, and love, in this family whose life is built around following Jesus, love means obedience and obedience means love…

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Resurrection Witness

(A sermon based on 1 John 3:1-7 & Luke 24:36b-48 for the 3rd Sunday of Easter)

I grew up with, attended church with, and roomed in college with a guy named Randy. His father was named Roscoe and my father was named Champ; the two of them died within a few weeks of each other in 1979 and we held each of their funerals in the legendary Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia. We both married Mercer girls who were good friends, he Jennie and I Debra.

After losing contact as we lived our respective lives, we all happily reconnected a few years ago. Neither Randy nor Debra do Facebook but Jennie and I do and our spouses participate vicariously through us. Not long after we reconnected, Jennie put a picture of Randy and her on Facebook; the last time I had seen them we were all quite a bit younger. When I saw the picture, I sent Randy an email that said, “Jennie is beautiful. You are Roscoe.”

Not long ago, I put a picture of me with my dog, the well-known public figure Rainey Jane Ruffin, on Facebook, and another old hometown friend, this one named Debbie, commented, “I could have sworn I was looking at Champ Ruffin.” I’m pretty sure she was talking about me and not about the dog, given that my father, as is the case with all Ruffins, was extremely good looking. Come to think of it, so is Rainey Jane.

Anyway, Randy and I do look like our fathers. I imagine that sometimes, when Randy does something or says something in a certain way, his mother sees Roscoe—and I imagine that my mother would see and hear Champ in my mannerisms and words were she still with us.

Some family connections shouldn’t be denied.

Some family connections should be celebrated.

Some family connections should be cultivated.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him,” wrote John the Elder (1 John 3:1). In God’s love, God has made us the children of God. Because we are God’s children, we bear a family resemblance to God. How can that be? Well, Jesus Christ the Son of God was the image of God and the fullness of God in the world and so we who are the children of God are the sisters and brothers of Jesus; we look like Jesus—or at least we can look like Jesus—in the ways we think, talk, and act.

John the Elder said that the world did not know Jesus and so the world would not know us because we look like Jesus. Maybe what he meant was that the world did not like the way that Jesus looked—the way that he thought, talked, and acted—and so the world will not like the way that we look—that is, the world will not like the way we look when we think, talk, and act like Jesus did.

Or maybe the problem was that Jesus did not think, talk, and act like they thought God should and would think, talk, and act. And maybe the reason that people these days don’t have much of a problem with the Church is that we don’t think, talk, and act very much like Jesus did. Maybe the world knows us and likes us just fine because we fit in just fine with the world’s ways of domination and manipulation that revolve around the exercise of power and the worship of money.

Take a moment and think about it—what’s the difference between the way you deal with problems and with people (which can be the same thing) or with success and circumstances (which can also be the same thing) and the way that people who don’t claim to follow Jesus or who don’t claim to take their following of Jesus seriously deal with them?

Do we in our day-to-day really bear witness to the suffering, crucified, and resurrected Jesus that we say we follow and that we say is present in and among us?

Jesus told the disciples to whom he appeared on the evening of the day he rose from the tomb, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

How were they to bear witness to him? How were they to testify to a Messiah who suffered, died, and rose? How were they to testify to the forgiveness of sins? How were they to testify to the presence in their lives of the resurrected Christ?

How are we?

They were to do so and we are to do so by becoming more and more like Jesus, which we can do because he is in us and among us. As John the Elder put it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

In other words, we are not yet what we will be when we become just like he is but we are—we really can be—well on our way to becoming like he is.

Interestingly, John said that we would one day become like Jesus because we will see him as he is; that is, when Jesus returns we will become all that we are supposed to be. To a large extent, though, we have already seen him as he is—we have seen him in our Gospels as the suffering, crucified, and resurrected Son of God. We have even seen him in a few—perhaps a very few—Christians that we know bear witness in their lives to who Jesus really is. So we can even now be well on the way toward becoming those who follow Jesus through giving ourselves up in suffering, sacrifice, death, and resurrection.

Perhaps one way to consider the kind of witness to the resurrected Christ we need to become is to consider the kind of witnesses to him that make us uneasy; perhaps they make us uneasy because we see in them what we know down deep inside we ought to be but are afraid of becoming.

Are there people whose witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ makes you uneasy? What about those Amish witnesses who forgave the killer of their children? Or witnesses like Mother Teresa who tend to the lepers and other outcasts? Or witnesses who live simply without slavish ties to technology? Or witnesses who point out and challenge corporate (or corporation) evil as well as individual sin? Or witnesses who live out the ways of reconciliation and peace rather than the ways of conflict and war? Or witnesses who remind us about our connection with all other people and with all other living things?

Well, let’s look at Jesus one more time as he stands there in front of his disciples on Easter evening and as he stands here before us one more time, his wounded hands stretched out for us to see. What do we learn from what he showed of himself to his disciples and from what he is again showing us? How did they and how do we bear witness to him?

First, be real. Jesus said, “Touch me and see.” We need to be real to ourselves and to others; we need to be the body of Christ to each other and to the world; we need to be the presence of Christ with sinners and with saints. We need to be available and vulnerable.

Second, be wounded. Jesus said, “Look at my hands and my feet.” His hands and feet bore the wounds of his crucifixion. We need to accept and to bear the wounds that come to us when we show love and grace and mercy. The earliest Christians understood the words of Isaiah 53 as descriptive of the kind of Messiah Jesus was: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account” (v. 3).

Jesus was so wounded that he was hard to look at. I wonder why the Church today is so easy on people’s eyes.

And third, be alive. Resurrected folks who serve a resurrected Lord ought to be more alive than we’ve ever been before. Of course, Jesus shows us that real life is found only on the other side of the kind of death to self that leads to purposeful and intentional sacrifice.

What kind of Christian life are we living? To what kind of Messiah are we bearing witness?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Resurrection Fellowship

(A sermon based on 1 John 1:1-2:2 and John 20:19-31 for the Second Sunday of Easter 2012)

Early on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene discovered that the stone had been removed from the tomb of Jesus. When she reported that troubling news to Peter and the Beloved Disciple, they ran to the tomb and found the tomb empty except for Jesus’ grave clothes. Then, they went home. Mary Magdalene returned to the empty tomb where she encountered the risen Christ and, following his directive, went and told the disciples the very exciting news that she had seen the Lord.

So, naturally, all of the disciples, hearing that strange news, went out immediately to see if they could see the risen Christ, too.

Well, no, they didn’t.

So that evening Jesus came looking for them, and he found them, cowering behind locked doors.

To be fair, they had reason to be afraid—It was entirely possible that the same authorities that had Jesus killed would come after them next. Also to be fair, they had reason to be skeptical—yes, it was a fact that Jesus’ body was gone but there were much more reasonable explanations for that than that he had risen from the dead. Still, he had raised Lazarus, hadn’t he? And now that they thought about it, he had tried to tell them something about his being killed and then raised, hadn’t he? But still, even though Mary Magdalene claimed to have seen him, nobody else had and maybe she was just hysterical in her grief.

Better safe than sorry, they concluded, and so they locked themselves away from the threatening world.

Before we are too hard on the disciples, we should reflect on how we can be just like them, by which I mean that we try to lock our doors against the threats of the world, too.

We might do so as individuals when we try to ignore the hurts and losses that are going on all around us or when we refuse to let our real selves be known but instead wear masks that we think will meet people’s approval or when we lock ourselves into a narrow-minded and shallow-spirited religion that refuses to take seriously the minds and spirits of people.

We might do so as a church when we see our sanctuary as a fortress against the attacks of the world rather than as a base for ministry in our community or when we talk about the same old things that are wrong with the world more than we talk about how God in Christ is making all things new and right or when we spend much, much more of our time, energy, resources, and money on serving ourselves than we do on trying to serve others.

Besides, the disciples had not yet seen or encountered the risen Christ; they had the testimony of others but they still had their doubts, as the absent Thomas would articulate later. (By the way, I wonder where Thomas was on that first Easter Sunday evening. We tend to criticize him for not being present; should we commend him for being the only one not locked away in the group fear fest?).

No, they did not go to find Jesus but Jesus did come to find them.

And whether or not we open our locked doors and leave our fortress church to go look for him, he does come looking for us.

So the disciples were—and we are—the fellowship of the found.

Interestingly, and maybe even amazingly, a week later, Jesus came back to them—and they were behind closed doors again!

Maybe one reason he came back was to give Thomas the affirmation for which he had asked, but maybe another reason was to give the disciples, still huddled away from the threats of the world, a second chance.

Thankfully, the Lord knows that we need second—and third and fourth and fifth and…how high can we count, anyway?—chances.

When I served on a university faculty, we were always getting directives from above (the administration, not the Lord) about thinking about ways to “work smarter” and ways to improve our “quality.” Finally, at one meeting, our most veteran professor said in frustration, “I already know how to do a better job than I’m doing!”

We know how to do more and better with our discipleship than we’re doing, too, and we even know that it is possible. After all, Christ is risen indeed! The same resurrected Jesus whose wounds Thomas could see and to whose reality the other apostles testified is present with, in, and among us. We know that we can have deeper fellowship with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and with each other in the community of the Church. We know that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” and that “if we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”

We know it is possible! We know that in fellowship with God we can be who God means for us to be. We know that the Bible’s stated ideal for us is that we not sin.

But we know that the Bible’s stated grace for us is that we do sin and that when we do, “the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin” and that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us and that “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” and that “if we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

So there it is. We are not to sin. We do sin.

Thanks be to God, when Jesus finds us he makes us the fellowship of the forgiven.

Here is reality for us, if we will face it: as the monk said when asked to describe life in the monastery, “We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again…”

This is where we live in the real Christian life in the real world as real people serving a real Savior: we live where failure meets forgiveness, where guilt meets grace, and where carelessness meets compassion.

We are the fellowship of the found and the fellowship of the forgiven.

Jesus once told a parable about two men who went up to the Temple to pray. One, a respected member of the religious establishment, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The other, the tax collector references in the religious man’s prayer, would not look up toward heaven and beat his breast as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Which one was a member of the fellowship of the found and the forgiven and which one was not?

Which one are you?

Which one would you rather hang around with?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Assimilating Holy Week

It is Easter Monday, the day after Easter Sunday, the second of the Fifty Great Days of Easter.

I decided that this year I would begin a new tradition of using that day to pray, to reflect, to recover, to regroup, and to do some gardening.

It’s all about assimilating the experiences of last week into my life and I hope that you will spend some time doing that, too. I’m thinking about all that the disciples of Jesus had to assimilate when they woke up on the first Easter Monday; it boggles my mind—but not as much as it boggled theirs, I’m sure.

Two related words are haunting me: “follow” and “participate.” I am struggling to think about and to live in light of the fact that to be a Christian means to follow Jesus Christ and to participate in the life of Jesus Christ.

During Holy Week I found myself thinking and preaching about following Jesus wherever he goes.

So on Palm Sunday we imagined Jesus riding toward us and then away from us and we pondered the questions “Where is he going?” and “Will I follow him, go the other direction, or just stand right here?” Those are vital questions, I think. Answering them requires getting to know him and getting to know ourselves—both are difficult and necessary processes.

On Maundy Thursday we imagined Jesus washing our feet and telling us that we are to love each other in the same way that he loved us and we pondered the question of whether we in our lives exhibit a love that looks anything like the love he showed in stooping to do a slave’s service to his disciples. That’s a vital question, I think. There is no way—absolutely no way—to separate loving, sacrificial service from the practice of Christian discipleship.

On Good Friday we imagined ourselves watching the crucifixion of Jesus and we pondered the question of whether we follow the teaching of Jesus that to be his followers means taking up our cross and following him and that of Paul that we are to have the mind of Christ which means emptying ourselves completely and utterly in willing sacrifice. That’s a vital question, I think. After all, to be “Christian” is to be “Christ-like” and the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that being Christ-like is all about giving up self for the sake of God and for the sake of other people and not about a lot of the things that we try to make it be about.

On Easter Sunday we imagined ourselves hearing the testimony of that first witness to the resurrected Christ, Mary Magdalene, as she breathlessly shared the news with us that Jesus is alive and we then imagined ourselves being in the room when Jesus made his first appearance to the gathered disciples and showed us his wounds and breathed on us the Holy Spirit and told us that he was sending us out to continue his mission. We pondered the question of whether we are really able to see Jesus—we’re not, except in our faithful imaginations—or whether we are numbered among those who have not seen yet believe—and we are, which is all right, since Jesus said such ones are blessed. That’s a vital question, I think, because the fact is that our following of Jesus, while based in a personal relationship with him through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, also depends—at least for its beginning--on the testimony of others, be they biblical authors or contemporary Christians.

What passes for “proof” in our modern Western scientific mindset will not come to us in a life of discipleship. The “proof” of our relationship with and following of Jesus comes in our willingness to accept that it is in Jesus’ wounds that his faithful service is seen—even after his resurrection his wounds were still visible—and that it is in our willingness to be wounded and to bear our wounds for God’s sake and for love’s sake that our following is given validity.

Given that Paul said that our resurrection bodies will be like of Jesus, I wonder if we must place alongside the truth that there are no tears in heaven the possibility that the wounds we accept or that are forced upon us in our service to God and to others will be visible.

The ongoing accumulation of wounds as evidence of our love is the closest thing to proof of our relationship with Jesus that we are likely to get.

As we follow Jesus, then, we will find ourselves participating with him in his life; we will find ourselves living a life like the life he lived, and that life is a life of love, of service, and of sacrifice.

Perhaps I can distill what I learned this Holy Week into this: whereas I have always prayed, thought, and preached about what it means that Jesus suffered, died, and rose for us, this year I found myself praying, thinking, and preaching about what it means that we suffer, die, and rise with him.

The challenge now is to assimilate into my day-to-day living what I have been assimilating into my prayers, thoughts, and sermons…

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Look! He is Risen!

(A sermon based on John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday 2012)

During this Holy Week we have been closing our eyes and using our imaginations to try to place ourselves in the events of that most crucial of weeks and to see Jesus as he lived and died through them.

Last Sunday we looked at him as he rode into Jerusalem and into the week that would hold the events that would be so trying and tragic for him and so devastating and transforming for his followers.

Do you remember how he looked as he rode toward you, as he looked at you, and as he rode past you?

On Thursday we looked at him as he washed our feet and as he told us that we were to love each other as he loved us.

Do you remember how he washed the feet of his disciples, including Peter who would deny him, Judas who would betray him—and you?

On Friday we looked at him as he was fastened to the cross, as he was taken down from it, and as he was laid in his tomb.

Do you remember how he looked as he was being nailed to the cross, as he suffered and bled, as he breathed his last, as he died, as he was taken down from the cross, and as he was placed in a tomb?

On Saturday, hopefully we took some time to look at him as he was in his tomb, his body taking its Sabbath rest.

Do you remember the feeling of finality and the sense of hopelessness that came over you as you gazed upon the large stone that blocked the entrance to his tomb?

Do you remember?

All week long we have said that it takes imagination to see Jesus and to see ourselves seeing Jesus. Maybe, though, the better word to use would be “faith”; that is, we have to take the leap of faith, to exercise the gift of trust, really to see Jesus and to see ourselves in the story of Jesus.

Seeing ourselves in the story of Jesus back then is one thing while seeing ourselves in the story of Jesus right now is another thing—but they are related things.

So today, let’s try one more time.

Please close your eyes and imagine.

You have been in hiding since Friday out of fear that the authorities who had your Teacher killed will come after you and his other disciples, too. You and others of the group are locked away in what you hope is a safe place.

All day Saturday you have tried to stay out of sight. Your heart has been heavy and your mind has been confused. You had such high hopes. Now it seems that everything is like it always was, only worse, because, you reflect, hope never felt is bad enough but hope felt and then dashed is utterly heartbreaking.

Sunday morning you awake and start thinking about what you should do now. Perhaps you should just go home and back to the life you used to know. Maybe you should leave the country and try to put as much space between this wretched place and these wretched events as possible. Maybe you should just try to put Jesus out of your mind.

A rueful smile comes to you despite your best attempts to stop it—you know that despite the way things turned out, he’ll never be out of your mind.

“Why is that?” you’re wondering when your friend Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ disciples, shows up knocking on the door, almost yelling for you to let her in, like she has forgotten the danger that you are all in and how important it is that you not be noticed or found.

Peter and John go to the door and she almost knocks them over with her confused and grief-laden words: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!”

After a while Peter and John come back. “What happened?” you ask. “We don’t know,” they reply, “the stone has been rolled away and his body is gone. We don’t know. We just don’t know.”

It seems the final insult. Usually the body of a crucified person was left on the cross for the scavengers to enjoy. At least, thanks to some benefactors, Jesus had been given a decent burial. But now, the authorities—who else could it have been except the authorities, given that a guard had been posted?—had taken his body away to do—well, to do what?—with it.

“They couldn’t even let him rest in peace,” you think. Everyone in the room is staring at the floor.

Then, suddenly, there Mary Magdalene is again, this time practically knocking the door down. As soon as you see her you know something has happened; she is grinning from ear to ear even as tears stream down her face. She is aglow.

“I have seen the Lord!” she shouts, grabbing each of you and shaking you. “I have seen the Lord, I tell you!”

Someone makes her sit down and you give her a drink of water.

After catching her breath, she manages to spit out, between gasps and giggles, her story.

“I was standing outside his tomb, crying. Some strange looking men asked me why I was crying. I told them it was because someone had taken the body and I didn’t know where. I turned around and saw another man standing there. He asked me why I was crying and for whom I was looking. I thought he was the cemetery groundskeeper.”

At that Mary starts laughing so hard you’re afraid she is getting hysterical.

When she gets control of herself, she says, “So I asked him”—she starts laughing again—“I asked him to please tell me, if he was the one who had removed the body, where he was so I could take care of him.”

She wipes her eyes and says softly, “Oh Jesus!”

“What did you say?” someone asks.

She starts laughing again. “Jesus! It was Jesus! He called my name and as soon as he did, I knew it was him. He is alive! I moved to embrace him but he told me not to, saying something I didn’t understand, something about having to go to the Father. Then he told me come tell you all, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Everyone looks at her, confused.

“That’s the part I didn’t understand, either,” she says. “But don’t you see? What matters is that he is alive!”

Can you believe her? Dare you believe her? Dare you not believe her?

It sounds too good to be true. Maybe it’s too good not to be true!

All day long you wonder. You and the other disciples discuss it among yourselves. She was probably hallucinating. But what if she wasn’t? You go back and forth, back and forth.

The issue is settled that evening when Jesus appears among you and your fellow disciples and says “Peace be with you.” Then, as if to alleviate any doubts you might still be having as to the reality of who you are seeing, he shows you the wounds in his hands and the wound in his side.

Please open your eyes.

Look at him.

Look at his wounds for it is his wounds that prove that it is Jesus.

Now listen to him: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Now feel the breath of his life upon you as he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Go, he tells you—he tells us—to be in our world, in our community, in our home, in our church, in our workplace, in our school—the wounded, raised, and empowered body of Christ.

Do you see him?

It might be helpful and encouraging to remember that a few days later Jesus would say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”…

Friday, April 6, 2012

Look! He Is Crucified!

(A sermon for Good Friday, 2012)

It is a good thing during this Holy Week for us to imagine that we were there.

Please close your eyes and imagine.

It has been a long and awful day.

Your Teacher, your Master, the one on whom you had pinned so many of your hopes, has been beaten, mocked, humiliated, and convicted of challenging the cooperating authorities of religion and empire.

He has been sentenced to death.

After a torturous walk on which he was accompanied by other convicted insurrectionists and by crowds of onlookers, his arms were nailed and roped to the crossbeam that was then hoisted to the upright beam to which it was fastened. His ankles were then nailed to sides of the upright beam.

There he hangs, exposed and vulnerable, brutalized and humiliated.

Look at him.

He is bruised and bleeding.

Look at him.

He is exhausted and spent.

Look at him.

He is dying.

Look at him.

He is what happens to love and grace when they are lived fully and well.

Look at him.

He has given of himself until he is empty.

Look at him.

He said to be his disciples we must follow him.

Look at him.

He draws his last breath.

Look at him.

He is taken down from the cross.

Look at him.

He is laid in a tomb.

Look at him.

He is sealed in the tomb by a large stone.

Look at him.

He is dead.

Look at him.

Please open your eyes.


Look at him.

Look at him….

Now…hear the word of the Lord:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)


Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:23-25)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Look! He Is Serving!

(A sermon based on John 13:1-17; 31b-35 for Maundy Thursday 2012)

During Holy Week it is a good thing to try to imagine what it was like to experience the events of that week; it is a good thing to try to place ourselves in the story so that maybe we can in fact find ourselves in the story.

So I invite you to close your eyes and imagine.

It is Passover week in Jerusalem and the city is teeming with pilgrims and the air is thick with tension. The Roman-appointed governor, Pontius Pilate, is in the city for the week as is his custom and Roman soldiers are much more evident than usual. Your teacher Jesus has been involved in many controversies and has engaged in many debates with various religious leaders during the week.

What a relief it is to go into a private room to share a dinner with Jesus and with the other disciples; what a relief it is to shut the door and close yourselves off from the teeming crowd and from the maddening world.

Besides, you think, it is always a joy to share a meal with Jesus; he always enjoys his food and he always enjoys the fellowship.

Soon, though, you realize that something is different about this night and about this meal.

The atmosphere in the room is heavy; the conversation around the table is subdued.

Jesus is much more solemn than usual; when he looks around the room there is a pronounced sadness in his eyes and when he speaks there is a troubling pain in his voice.

Everyone is eating and drinking—and waiting, although you are not sure for what.

Jesus is picking at his food.

Then he sighs, gets up, pours some water into a basin, and kneels in front of Bartholomew. He removes the disciple’s sandals. Bartholomew just sits there, his mouth open, as Jesus begins slowly and deliberately to wash his left foot. The water in the basin darkens with the dust from Bartholomew’s feet even as, you can’t help but notice, the countenance of Judas Iscariot, who is sitting beside Bartholomew, darkens with—well, you really can’t tell with what. Jesus moves to the right foot of Bartholomew and repeats the process, carefully and tenderly. He then takes a towel and dries Bartholomew’s feet.

Jesus stands.

He skips Judas.

He moves on to Matthew, then to Thomas, then to Thaddaeus. Judas is staring at the floor. You are staring at Judas.

Jesus pours a fresh basin of water and walks back to the group, stopping in front of—Judas. He kneels before Judas, placing the basin on the exact spot into which Judas has been trying to stare a hole. Jesus glances up at Judas with what you will later think of as a knowing glance and then gets to the business of washing Judas’ feet. Judas alternates between expressions that look like he wants to throw his arms around Jesus and like he wants to get up and bolt from the room.

Jesus moves to Philip, then to Andrew, then to James the Son of Alphaeus.

After refreshing his basin of water, Jesus goes to Simon Peter. To this point no one has said anything but you can always count on Peter to be the first. They’re on the other side of the room and their exchange is quiet but you can interpret their body language well enough to know that Peter at first refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet and then quite dramatically acquiesced. As Jesus begins to wash Peter’s feet, you see the first and only smile of the night appear on your Rabbi’s face—as well as the usual look of confident confusion on Peter’s.

Jesus then washes the feet of the brothers James and John, who are together, as usual.

And now, at last, he kneels in front of you.

Please open your eyes.

Look—he is serving—you!

Look—he is washing—your feet!

After putting away the basin and the towel, Jesus said, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Later, after Judas had in fact for some reason bolted from the room and as the room became filled with an air of expectation, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Look—he is serving!

Now—look at us…

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Look! He Is Coming!

(A sermon based on John 12:12-16 for Palm Sunday 2012)

I asked the congregation to close their eyes at the indicated point and not to open them until the indicated point.


Imagine that you were there.

Imagine that in Jerusalem it was a day kind of like it was there today: fair and around 80°--a lot like it is here, coincidentally. Imagine that the roads entering the city were more crowded than Pine Street in Fitzgerald on Wild Chicken Festival day—or even than those in Athens or Tallahassee on a fall Saturday afternoon or Augusta on any day this week. Imagine that rabbis and supposed messiahs were being greeted with more fervor than that directed toward Bruce Springsteen or Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift when they first appear on stage.

Imagine that you had heard him or heard of him or been with him or knew someone who had been with him.

Please close your eyes.

Imagine that you hear the whispers and then the murmurs and then the shouts: “He is coming! There he is! I see him! He is coming! He is coming!”

Before you see him you see the people--people who had followed him and people who were curious about him and people who were caught up in the crowd mentality and people who had been impressed by his raising of Lazarus as well as, no doubt, by other miracles he had performed. They are running before him, spreading palm branches along the dusty way before him. They are shouting “Save us, we pray! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”

And then, as he comes around the bend, you see him. He is riding on a young donkey that is trying to remain calm in the face of all the tumult around it. The donkey’s gait is slow as the palm branches land with gentle rustling sounds before it; it cautiously steps along the slippery green carpet.

Perhaps the donkey is so careful because it senses that the man who is its burden would gladly change places with it if possible.

The closer the man gets to you and the better you can see his face, the more moved and troubled you are. His expression is simultaneously concerned and serene, troubled and peaceful, present and removed, determined and relaxed. And his eyes—you couldn’t even begin to describe his eyes, no matter how hard you tried; the word “compassion” comes to mind but it’s not nearly enough.

You listen to the people: “Save us, we pray!” they are shouting, which makes some sense to you; who, after all, is not in trouble? You know you are. Who does not, after all, need to be saved? You know you do. But what does that have to do with this man who is riding on a donkey, who is blinking in the bright sunlight as he looks around at—it seems—absolutely everybody?

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!”—that one really has you confused. What kind of king rides into the capital on a donkey with a bunch of peasants singing his praises?

He is smiling at those peasants; he clearly enjoys being surrounded by them.

Then you notice some men standing in a knot, talking and pointing and gesturing and fuming. They are not peasants; they are dressed in the robes of the big-time religious leaders. The man on the donkey sees them, too, and when he does, his face becomes clouded for a moment, but it passes, and he starts waving and smiling to the peasants again.

He is riding past you now. He looks right at you.

Please open your eyes.

He’s so close you can almost touch him. You see the dust in his dark beard, the lines on his dark face, and the tears in his dark eyes; those eyes lock with yours for just a moment, a moment that feels like an hour to you.

You feel things.

You feel both life and death emanating from him.

You are simultaneously drawn to him and repulsed by him.

He is past you now.

There he goes.

The crowd continues to go before him, singing and praising and dancing and tossing palm branches. You watch him until he rounds the next bend and things calm down.

You stand there, thinking. He looked so resolute, so determined, so torn, so together, so tense, so relieved. He looked like a man on a mission—a dangerous mission. Where will he go? What will he do? What will happen to him? What does the rest of today hold? What does the rest of the week hold?

You know that you will think of nothing else on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,




and even a week from now, next Sunday.

You may never think of anything ever again without thinking of that man on that donkey with that face, those eyes, that aura.

What will you do for the rest of this week—and for the rest of your life?

Will you follow him wherever he is going?

Will you turn around and go the other way?

Or will you just keep standing there...