Tuesday, July 2, 2013

From Armageddon to WW Z

Welcome to the summer of our virtual annihilation. The movies have become even more apocalyptic than the Book of Revelation. This spring and summer alone, we have been asked to contemplate in fiction or hyped-up newscasts the terroristic take-over of the White House, the "oblivion" of earth, the bloody onslaughts of various aliens, planet-crushing asteroids, natural disasters, zombies and miscellaneous other evils. From Armageddon to World War Z, to comedic treatments of the end, we are all gazing upon annihilation, and calling it entertainment.

It all reminds me how deeply fear runs in our lives and hearts, as natural human beings.

Years ago, John Buchanan, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Christian Century, wrapped one of his columns with this remark, "It has been said that the most common command in the Bible is 'Fear not.'" There is a reason for this, of course. The Hebrew and Greek Testaments are shot through with many, many frightened and fearful people, people who clamber out of Egypt afraid, wander the wilderness afraid, cross into the promised land afraid, elect kings afraid, and silence prophets out of fear. The are even disciples who must be reassured in every moment, so that one of the most frequent commands from Jesus is also, "Be not afraid."

We are the inheritors, not only of the endless DNA of fight-or-flight creaturliness, but also of the nearly four millenia of frightened God-seekers.

And the only resolution that brings this to an end is a God-given word: "Fear not."

Whatever worries you, or causes anxieties even during these pleasant summer days, deserves to be set in the perspective of this graced and powerful Gospel imperative. Walter Brueggeman, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, has said, "in the midst of chaos, Christians and Jews should be the least anxious people. When everything was taken away from them, they still had God. And they still have the ability to re-invent themselves because they still have God."

May God alone, not Hollywood's studios or Stephen King's novels, set the foundations and the frame of what we fear and what we hope! "Remember, I am with you always..." (Matthew 28:20).

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Commencing Plan B

Several years ago, we attended Commencement exercises at a college, and the speaker of the day was a CNN anchor and reporter, Aaron Brown.  He joyously urged the graduates to “go out and conquer their world” by figuring out what you most want to do, and when you have discovered that, then make that your Plan A. He also cautioned the graduates, and really every one else in the hall, about settling, about getting so anxious, or fearful about Plan A that you develop a Plan B, “just in case things don’t work out with your dream.” Brown emphatically told the students that Plan B is what wrecks Plan A. If you leave yourself an out, you will try to take it.

Like a lot of the graduates and their parents and families there, I could feel the pull of what Brown said, and I walked away that afternoon thinking to myself, “Yes! I’ve got to remember and re-imagine my Plan A! I can still conquer the world. I gotta be me!" This is how it should be when we dream, envision and imagine what we will do.

I wish you all your Plan A. I pray for you that your Plan A is already, or will soon become, vivid and compelling. However, I have something further that I wish and pray for each of you. I wish and pray Plan B for you, as well. A few days went by after I heard Mr. Brown’s remarks, and I realized something: the richest, most challenging, most distressing yet life-illumining-lessons I ever learned have been Plan B lessons.

Plan A is always an idealized plan. Nothing goes wrong. Everyone behaves. We are always energetic and kind. The wind is always blowing at our backs. We never get lost or confused. But as a friend of mine, a Presbyterian pastor, used to say, “Our ideal plans don’t work because no one ever imagines the effects of sin or fatigue." Or random events. Or a change of heart or perspective. Or…Or…Or…

Let me give you an example. At a certain point in my life, I developed an idealized image of myself, a Plan A, that I should earn a Ph.D. and ultimately become a professor and author. This went on for years and years, and I kept mentally scolding God and all my friends and my family for not getting it that I was secretly meant to be a renowned professor.

Then one day a pivotal thing happened, even though it took me years to realize what it meant for my Plan A. A couple came to see me about their marriage. I listened. I asked questions. I prayed with them. I tried to guide them. And it happened that I was there for them at just the right moment. Those two people re-committed to preserving the vibrancy of their marriage, and it dawned on me that during all the time I thought I was just temporarily doing my Plan B as a pastor, what was really going on was just God getting me in the place where, if I never did anything else worthwhile in my life, at least I helped two wonderful people to re-discover their love for each other. I realized I could live and die content with that one little thing, knowing that one good thing happened because of where God put me. You don’t need a Ph.D. for that: “Plan B Works, Too!” God's plan was that I would pastor others, and it was a vast improvement on my own best plans.

Plan B lives are so much better than strict Plan A lives because they are not about the idealized Self who impresses everybody; they are about being real, being vulnerable, being humble, being resilient, being hurt and getting up again; seeing other people hurt and helping them to get up again. They are about following Jesus, who was after all, God’s Plan B (after the Law and Prophets). Even when your own plans to conquer the world are shaken, and you don’t know how you can go on, you can still love the sisters and brothers. “And this is the victory that conquers the world" -- faith, hope and love -- Jesus Christ -- God’s Plan B.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"...And God Is A Methodist!"

Mary Lynn and I recently went to see the film "42". The movie tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first Black American to break into professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was an outstanding athlete, but he did not get into pro ball on his own. He was supported by a unique club owner, Branch Rickey. In the aftermath of World War II, Rickey was visionary enough to see all of professional sports opening up to ethnic minorities. He cultivated Jackie Robinson, and intentionally committed himself to the social cost of a decision to bring Robinson in at that time in history.

Whether it's apocryphal or not, I don't know, but there is a decisive moment in the film when Rickey resolves to move inexorably ahead with his hire of Robinson, no matter the consequences, saying, "I am a Methodist. He is a Methodist. And God is a Methodist!" 

God may be a Methodist. I don't know about that, one way or another (though I have often suspected it), but what is inspiring in Branch Rickey's statement is the conviction he has that with God--and a united church--"nothing is impossible," not even the integration of American professional baseball.

If this is so, then what if we imagined for a moment that God is capable of far more than we ask or imagine? Where would the church be digging in? Offering Christ to every human being in generous and kind ways? Solutions to malaria? Relief from poverty? Solving global warming? Ending the burning issues of brutality and violence in our nation and world? Feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Healing the sick and visiting the imprisoned? Sharing comfort and wise counsel? Doing the practical things every community needs--offering rides, preparing meals, raising children and teens in healthy circles of parents and adult friends? Glorifying God with heartfelt songs and prayers?

What could you imagine giving your life's energy to, if you knew that with God's help, you could not fail to be a sign of hope, love and faith? This may well be what it means to be a Christian disciple--and a Methodist! Nothing is impossible, or too daunting, for us. We can be signs of the Spirit's love active in the world, as Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey became signs of an in-breaking new world of racial inclusion.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Adventure Begins

The Grace Event For Us: Healing, Teaching, Cross, and Empty Tomb
Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday (Easter) bring with them a new sensitivity to God's love, suffering, guidance and power. We hear the story of Jesus Christ as calling, ministry, teaching, example, cost and glory of God's passion for us, all condensed into this particular week spent in Jerusalem.

If ever there was cause given to stir up the flames of the Spirit in the churches, and the fired-up spirits within us, this must be it! "Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1, 2).

Our Grateful Reply to Grace
One can always hope that gracious and costly acts of forgiveness and compassion will stir up grateful replies. God knows, it does not always happen that way. But when it does, something magnificent and humbling can begin! Souls are delivered. Disciples are formed. Quarrels are ended. Churches begin again. Nations are reformed. Justice, mercy and peace break out. The adventure of life in God-Christ-Spirit launches.

An Emerging Movement of Gratitude Glorifying God--A Wesleyan Christian's Path
For some useful reference and correlation between our Wesleyan legacy or DNA as a structure for practice and renewal, and the emerging church movement, you might appreciate Hal Knight’s “John Wesley and the Emerging Church”(Google it). My summary is below:

Seven Features of Emerging Churches in Post-Modern Culture v/v Wesleyan DNA
  1. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches understand discipleship is “following closely and emulating the person and ministry of Christ," present forgiveness in Christ with evangelical commitment to ministries with the poor.
  2. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches are pre-eminently missional, called to reform the nation.
  3. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches are radically incarnational, all culture is subject to transformation and renewal by the reign of God
  4. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches are alternative communities, mission-created—networked small groups—accountability—distinctive lifestyle and disciplines
  5. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches find “truth” through biblical narrative, more than rational/propositional reading of Scriputure.
  6. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches  are practitioners of ancient/future worship, drawing from apostolic as well as contemporary sources (e.g. Covenant Services, Love Feasts, etc. were borrowed innovations in Wesley’s day).
  7. As in Wesleyan DNA, emerging churches are humble, yet confident, advocates of “generous orthodoxy” (what Wesley called in his day, “catholic spirit”), holding to the few essentials of faith and to a life marked by love of God and neighbor.
As a last note, Knight commends Wesley’s “orthopathy” (or “right heart”) to the emerging churches, not simply that they are orthodox in doctrine (right belief) or orthopraxis (right practice), but that these come as praise and prayer from a right heart, one “formed, governed and motivated by love” from God in Christ for “our God, our neighbor and the creation itself."

Holy God, may our hearts be strangely warmed by the power and suffering of Passion and Resurrection events this week and for our lifetimes and beyond. May our churches be startling enlivened by the One risen from the dead, and may our communities demonstrate kingdom compassion. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lent Begins and "Tomorrow" Ends

When a friend of mine was dying of complications from cancer treatments, he was given a new perspective on life which he generously shared with others. He said that our culture tells us, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life, and the best is yet to come." We are instructed that we may always expect a better tomorrow.

My friend's own learning as a devoted Christian during his extended illness was, rather, that one must learn to come to grips with loss day by day, and to detach from things one step at a time. He would say, "Today is the last day of the best of your life." At first blush, it seems dark, but the longer we live with what he had to say, the more we recognize it is simply truth, so far as worldliness and health are concerned. Soon or late, we must lose all and suffer the end of all we attached ourselves to holding.

We must die a little. If we are to die well, we must come entirely to the end of ourselves.

Lent is the season for practicing this loss and for rehearsing this insight so that it gains traction in us. We are not "immortals." We are at this level simply mortal creatures coming to our end, and on another, related level we are sin-injured souls who show the wounds of our own actions and the misdeeds of others.

The Gospel journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, a path we may walk every year with Jesus, is also a journey toward insight, loss, detachment -- and death. We confess this. We confess mortality and sin. We say we are ashes and dust, and in these we mourn and repent.

While it is ultimately true that "the best is yet to come," this has everything to do with God's loving initiative in Jesus Christ toward the suffering, regretting, mourning, dying. It has nothing to do with what future entertainments or fulfillments we may still dream about from our careers, our studies, or as the outcome of our fortunate circumstances. Neither is this best from God limited by the flaws, shortcomings, collapses or destructions of our early misfortunes.

God's best for us exceeds the day we live and ends in final blessing. It may be true for many of us that from this day forward, our "tomorrows" will  get no better, and we will die a little. However, it is also true that nothing which happens for good or for ill can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

At Water's Edge: Human Suffering and the New Year

In a 1937 novel written by Zora Neale Hurston, a hurricane approaches a poor community at the water’s edge in Florida. Big winds vibrate like a giant drum, lightning brightens the sky, and thunder rolls. The main characters, hiding in their home, hear terrible crashings and screamings. They look at the door of their house questioning God. The author wrote, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

Today, there are other events to occupy us—global warming, worldwide brutalities linked with religious fundamentalism, handgun violence, emotional distress, poverty and underemployment, and financial crises in so many places. How could so many people living and playing at the water’s edge not be hypnotized by the prospect of being swept away by one or another of the possible, long, terrible waves of destruction we face now?

Years ago, one of our church members told me that their son, Erik, who was five years old, came home from church, “Why does God let the bad stuff happen?” So, apart from the human grief and compassion we are all feeling, apart from our urgent desire to contribute and to support our suffering neighbors, here is our intellectual and faith crisis—our questioning, coming from the mouth of a babe. We all stand at the water’s edge, uncertain of what we see, yet fascinated, awe-struck and questioning.

Jesus asks the very same, deeply human questions about unpredictable disasters when in Luke’s gospel, for example, he asked those around him, “Do you think that the 18 killed when the tower at Siloam fell were 'worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?'"  In other words, is there something meaningful in an accident, or a disaster, or not? The question is universal; the answers unbelievably diverse and sometimes contradictory.

In 1755, a major earthquake (close to a 9 on the Richter scale) and an attendant tsunami struck Lisbon, Portugal, even then a prestigious city, on All Saints' Day. Reportedly, 70,000 people were killed there and elsewhere, as the shockwaves and tsunami struck various cities and communities in much of Europe and northern Africa. At the time, the philosopher Voltaire wondered in a letter to a friend, “What will the preachers say…” In that single speculative question, an intellectual gauntlet was laid down before all Christian churches and thinkers of his day and ours. Implicit in Voltaire’s remark was a fundamental challenge to classical Christian logic on the problem of suffering.

Theologians and preachers of the 18th century certainly saw basically three main reasons to argue in favor of divine purpose at work even in human disaster. First, as many Christians do today, they saw God as sovereignly and mysteriously in control of all events, making them serve redemptive purposes; therefore, even disasters must lie within God’s will. Second, some saw the End-time or Apocalypse at hand, as an expression of God’s sovereignty and reaction to human sin. Today, we hear the same thing from Christian pastors and thinkers, as well as from other faiths. The trouble with this argument is that it has been applied to virtually every major earthquake, famine and natural disaster in history—with no decisive result, to date. In any case, I agree with Martin Luther, who told his friends, “Death is death.” It doesn't matter if one dies or 100,000.

Other 18th century Christian leaders argued, and they still have their counterparts today, that there could be morally sufficient reasons for God to permit suffering. John Wesley saw the harm done to Lisbon as a call to repentance for all equally sinful human beings residing elsewhere. He opposed the appeal to scientific reason, saying, “It is not chance that governs the world…. If all these afflictive incidents entirely depend on the fortuitous concourse and agency of blind, material causes; what hope, what help, what resource is left for the poor sufferers...?”

In contrast and opposition, the philosophers of that Enlightenment period in Lisbon and Europe held that the movements of the world machine might have been created by God, but they could not be interrupted by God.

So, why does God let bad stuff happen? Here is my answer to a five-year-old named Erik and to Voltaire. First, I agree with some Christian teachers who say that God’s “power” is often misunderstood. Once God sets a free and material universe into motion, not even God can decide to block out one of the outcomes of that universe—which is suffering. In other words, Erik, you cannot have a real world without seeing it get hurt sometimes.

Second, some Christian teachers say that God’s “goodness” is also often misunderstood. God’s love is not trivial or sentimental; it works into the farthest reaches of the tens of thousands of galaxies. This goodness is so immense and so all-embracing that it can even include all suffering as an unavoidable consequence of real love. In other words, Erik, we cannot care deeply for one another without sometimes needing to be hurt by the things that occur while we are on the way to God’s “good stuff”.

Third, I think some Christian teachers have interesting things to say when they admit that God’s power may not be entirely sovereign, or that it may still be maturing as we journey toward the fulfillment of all existence. In other words, Erik, just as you grow up to be 6 or 20, and gain new abilities, so God may also be growing and changing in certain respects, as God responds to the way the things are in the universe and in our world.

The last thing I want to say is that I think that God suffers the pain of the world, its creatures and people. Christ suffers for the world. This knowledge somehow comforts and inspires me. God knows all that we are experiencing and enduring. We have been baptized into Christ’s death and into his resurrection. Therefore, we also participate in the suffering of Christ and of the world. Therefore, we also always stand at water’s edge, just as Jesus did when he came to be baptized in the Jordan by John.

Therefore, we are not afraid to stand with the suffering at the water’s edge, watching the massive tidal wave sweep in. We are not afraid to drown at the water’s edge, if that is what is required of us by duty to our neighbor or by unavoidable circumstance.

The Christian theologian, Alister McGrath, once wrote, “The sufferings of this earth are for real. They are painful. God is deeply pained by our suffering, just as we are shocked, grieved and mystified by the suffering of our family and friends. But that is only half the story. The other half must be told…. [It is] a glorious vision of a new realm of existence. It is a realm in which suffering has been defeated. It is a realm pervaded by the refreshing presence of God…. It lies ahead, and though we have yet to enter into it, we can catch a hint of its fragrance and hear its music in the distance…. Just as suffering is real, so are the promises of God…”

Because we are Christians, we know that at a place on a Galilean beach, at the water’s edge, when the full and disastrous hurricane and flood of death had overwhelmed the disciples, they suddenly found the one who had suffered and died standing alive on the beach, and they had to say,“It is the [risen] Lord” (John 21:7).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent: "Prepare the Way of the Lord..."

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord...'" (Matthew 3:1-3)

When I was about 14 or 15, I remember my father shaking me awake one Saturday morning. He said, "The pastor is coming to talk to you, and he wants to meet with you in your room." Well, my room was a typical teenager's wreck, and so his announcement threw me into a panic. I jumped in the shower, dressed, then scrambled to pick up, put away, sweep, mop, make the bed, and get everything spotlessly ready for the pastor to visit. When I was done (and sweating the arrival that could come at any moment), I went upstairs to my mother and father, and asked breathlessly, "When is the preacher coming?" My dad just grinned, and said, "We were kidding." He was happy. On a Saturday morning, his teen-aged son was up and awake, and the bedroom chores were actually completed. Needless to say, I was not pleased.

Well, Advent is about One who comes in the Incarnation, and this time, no one is kidding. It truly is time to awaken, put on new clothes, and prepare the way of the Lord.

The Advent of the Christ has a peculiar emotional mixture involved. On the one hand, it bears all the comforting and joyous emotions of the infant birth of the Christ, yet on the other hand "the day of the Lord" is described in both the Old and New Testaments as a day to dread. It is associated with earth-shaking events, with storms of wind and water, with anxiety, and with destruction of old structures. Christ's coming is simultaneously a time of confrontation with our slumbering souls or dirty rooms, and of comfort in the mercies shown us and of joy in the new world that awaits us in God's realm.

So when we mature a bit, we recognize that the season of Advent presents us with the challenge of accepting Christ into our world, and even preparing the way for his entry, as an event and relationship which potentially changes everything for us by both opposing, and by healing, our sin. The soul tells its truth, admitting flaws and also confessing to giftedness. God takes such souls by the work of Christ--and transforms them into amazingly beautiful human beings.

As this season progresses, the emphasis of the Sunday and daily readings shifts from warnings and prophecies toward more immediate experiences of grace, delight and hope. May this be true in your life. At first, Advent is a rough wake-up call and a summons to cleanse and prepare the heart. Yet as time goes by, the path becomes more smooth for every trembling heart.

Blessings in Christ in this paradoxical season of intermingling confrontation and hope.