Leaving a Legacy

“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” — Billy Graham, who turned 93 on November 7,2011.

Billy Graham has been an internationally recognized religious leader for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories of him come from sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching one of his crusades on the television.  To be honest, as a young boy, I was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching a televised sermon.  However, there was only one television and only two channels, so the options were limited.  Even if there had been other options, I am not sure that they would have been utilized.  My grandparents made it pretty clear that watching Billy Graham preach was important.

Through the years, they made other values clear as well.  The way they shared their values was just as important, maybe more so, as the values themselves.  They did so with a steadfast consistency that made their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel wanted and loved.

Of course, while they were leaving this legacy of love and faith they were not mindful of it.  At least, I don’t think they were.  They seemed to just be living their lives and doing the work that each day brought with it.  Mind you, each day, each task and each interaction was sprinkled with their values so that day by day their legacy was being left.

Legacies are not something that can be put off until the last minute.  Nor are they something that we can borrow from someone else.  All the while we are living we are leaving one.  The question then is not are we leaving a legacy, but what sort of legacy are we leaving?

Billy Graham rightly points out that leaving a legacy of character and faith is to be desired above one of money or material things.  I imagine that most of us would agree with him. Yet, most of us spend a good part of each day working to earn money so that we can buy the material things that we need.  Given that reality, it is not surprising that those matters become the focus of life for so many people. The problem does not lie in laboring daily for the necessities of life, but doing so in a way that conveys the idea that such activity, and the acquisition of its fruits, is what matters most in life.  Esther de Waal writes, “Christ was a carpenter for most of his life, and those years were not wasted ones.  Then I reflect that for me too it would be really very extraordinary if my own Christian life did not grow out of the most ordinary daily round of family life and earning a living.  Christianity does not isolate the sacred from the secular.  Not only are material things good in themselves, they are also signs of God’s loving attention, and they can, if we let them, open up a way to him.  God, in fact, reaches us where we are, at home, in the prosaic reality of our daily lives.”

The notion of leaving a legacy for those who come after us is a bit daunting.  It can easily become one large spiritual challenge that weighs us down rather than setting us free to live as God calls us.  Truth is, the legacy will take care of itself if we simply endeavor to live our lives day by day as near to God as we are able, recognizing God in the ordinary tasks of day- to-day living. and doing those tasks with care and love, even reverently, so life becomes a prayer.

How will we live the next 40 or so days?  Will we live them anticipating the advent of our savior’s birth?  Will they be for us days filled with mystery, wonder, joy and faith?  Or will they be for us hectic days filled with the stress that seems to have become an expected characteristic of the holiday season?  You may feel like you have no choice. You may feel like you have to do all the traditional things that are expected of you to make this season what it is supposed to be.  Many people do feel that certain holiday activities are necessary, even if those activities leave them worn out, frazzled and worried about how it is all going to get paid for when the bills start arriving in January.  Even church people spend a good deal of time during the holiday season upholding traditions that do little to draw them into a deeper experience the grace and love born so long ago at Bethlehem.

Doing something different can be hard, especially when accepted customs and practices have been established for so long.  Nonetheless, at Ball Camp Baptist Church we are going to try something new this year.  In a small way, it is an attempt to leave behind a new legacy, a legacy that gives life, hope and freedom. That’s right we are going to try to make the birth of Christ the focus of this Advent and Christmas season.  We are going to do that by asking a simple question:  What if the birth of Christ changed the world again?  What do followers of Christ need to do in order for Christ’s birth to once again be a world changing event?  How do we need to live these next 40 or so days in order to leave a legacy of hope and love, rather than one of frenzy and frustration?

This Advent season we are going to conspire together (literally: breathe together) around four ideas:

Worship Fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend Less – and free resources for things that truly matter.

Give More – of our presence, our hands, our words, our time, our hearts.

Love All – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

I believe that in our heart of hearts we believe that the birth of Christ is an event that can still change the world, and that is a legacy worth leaving to our children and grandchildren.

Friday Night Lights

You meet interesting people at high school football games. When the game is delayed for two hours because of thunder and lightening you can really get to know them.  At least, that was my experience last Friday night at South-Doyle High School.

The rain had stopped, but the lightening would not go away. The game could not resume until thirty minutes after the last lightening strike. He was standing just outside the door to the home team’s locker room when I noticed him. Since lightening was still in the area, what better way to pass the time than talking football? So, the conversation began.

We talked about games that we had played in ourselves that involved bad weather. I recalled a game that I had played in rain that was just a degree or two away from turning to sleet. He told me about the time that he played in a game that started in the rain and finished in the snow. Between the rain and the snow, there was sleet, and frozen jerseys.  In Michigan, where he played high school football, such weather was evidently not that uncommon.

Having spent my high school years in the temperate climate of East Tennessee, I did not have a weather story to top that one.  Therefore, the conversation progressed to family and work, as conversations do.  When he learned that I was a pastor he began to give me the religious history of his life. It was fascinating, and he was very religious. However, since we were the same age, it could only last for so long (since I am not that old).

Finally, the announcer’s voice came over the public address system saying that the game was going to resume. We began putting some closure to our time together. We were both glad that we had met and talked. It had been a pleasant way to pass the time.

I thought we were done, but then something changed in his eyes. Later, I would realize that at this moment we were just getting started. We had crossed the threshold into that place were he felt comfortable asking me the one question that he carried with him every moment of every day.

Earlier he had told me that he had seven daughters. Now he told me about his one son that he did not mention when we were talking about family.  He had not talked to his son in three years.  It was three years ago that he learned that his son was gay.

Now his son is forbidden to contact anyone in the family. He is so repulsed by who his son is that he does not want to speak to him. He cannot stand to look at him. In his mind, there was no way he could do anything less, given what the Bible says and what the church teaches about homosexuality.

His question for me was whether or not he was right in cutting off all contact with his son. We talked for a while, but in the end I told him that he was the only father that his son had, and that his son needed him now more than ever.  I could not tell if this man wanted a relationship with his son or not. Was he looking for permission to love his son, or justification for hating him?

There was a game to watch and so our conversation really did conclude this time. As I drifted back toward the field, I felt a deep sense of grief for this man and his lack of a relationship with his son. Something he thought would always be there was not.  Would this man’s relationship with his son be different if he had responded to him with love instead of hate, compassion instead repulsion, mercy instead of banishment?

On another level, I grieved for him because of the years he had spent in church.  What did he learn there? Did he learn that it is O.K. to talk about love, sing about love, receive the love of Christ, and then withhold it from people that do not conform to his standard of what is loveable?  Why didn’t someone tell him that sharing the love of Christ is just that — sharing the love of Christ? There are no disclaimers, no qualifiers and no escape clauses, just love. No, it is not always easy; but it is what Jesus calls us to do, because it is what he has done for us. While we were that which we would not love, he loved us and died for us. Without love, Christianity is something other than God intended for it to be.

Joy and Delight

(No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.)

His white coat was not easy to miss in the late afternoon sunlight.  I was startled by his presence.  Immediately, I tried to think of some way to respond to his presence.  Seeing a rock, I picked it up and let it fly in his direction.  Of course, I missed.  He was too small and I was too inaccurate.

He was a mouse.  At least, I started out thinking that he was a mouse.  The longer we were together, the more I started to think he might be an escaped lab rat.  He was too white to be an ordinary rat.  As it turned out he was also smart and fast.

My rock missed the mouse and hit the side of the deck, attracting the attention of my oldest son. “What are you doing?”  Maintaining operational silence, I used hand signals to communicate the presence of our intruder.  My son peered over the side of the deck and quickly spotted the white mouse.  Instinctively, he found a semi-suitable weapon for mouse hunting.  The mouse was cornered.  We made our move, and the mouse made his, around the corner of the house, under the fence, toward the front of the house.

Josh and I were in hot pursuit when my youngest son said, “What are you doing?”

“There’s a mouse in the monkey grass.”  Without any further encouragement, he joined the fray.  Before he made his ultimate escape, we chased that mouse from one end of the yard and back, from flower bed to flower bed, from bush to bush.  Midway through our hunt, I could not help but notice how much fun we were having together. The energy was high, our purpose was clear, our passion was rising, and we were together.  I slowed my efforts to get the mouse in order to watch my boys.

This little adventure was different.  It wasn’t like I had asked one of them to help with something around the house, which they may well have done, but certainly not with the same spirit and energy.  There was joy and delight in those 15 or so minutes of mouse hunting.

I could not help but wonder if what I was feeling was similar to what God might feel when we drop whatever we are doing and spend some time playing, worshipping and working with God.  How does God feel when we throw ourselves wholly, completely, maybe even recklessly, into something that God thinks is important?  What sorts of activities are we doing that cause God to experience joy and delight?

Three months ago Kendall McCosh, one of our deacons, suggested a prayer ministry whereby our deacons would pray for the members of our congregation.  The idea is simple.  Each deacon is given the names of six to eight church members that he or she will pray for each day.  The praying started this week.  I believe it is an activity that will bring joy and delight to the heart of God.

I believe that it does so for several reasons, the most prominent of which is the nature of God.  God is a loving God.  God’s love is never more evident than in Jesus Christ who took on flesh and came to us so that we might know just how much God loves us.  When we are praying for another person, we are demonstrating our love for that person.  Only God knows the impact on a person’s life when the love expressed by our praying joins with the great love that God has for that person.  What we do know is that God desires to be in an intimate and loving relationship with each one of us.  So when we love one another with prayer, we are doing the very thing that is the desire of God’s heart.

Therefore, know that you are loved not only by God, but that you are being loved by one of your deacons as he or she prays for you each day.  Also know that these men and women who accept the call to provide ministry leadership for our congregation are doing so in a way that brings joy and delight to God’s heart.

Who are we?

Who are we?  I Peter 2:9 says that we  “. . . are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are a people whose race is determined not by physical characteristics or ancestry, but by the call of God on our lives. As priests, we open the way for others to discover and to be embraced by the one who has brought us into the light.  We are a set-apart people or nation defined not by geographic boundaries, but by the love we demonstrate to others. 

In a world that is divided by race, gender, social and economic status, religion, and a host of other ways, what is significant about who we are?  If we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, what difference does that make in our lives?  It can make a huge difference.  If we embrace who we are, then every day becomes an opportunity for us to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness.  We proclaim those deeds sometimes by telling the story of who Jesus was and what he did, but always by embodying his thoughts, his values and his actions in our lives.

As a  “. . . chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” we are set apart — different from that which surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms us.  We, the church, find ourselves living in a nation and in a world that often bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We live to proclaim another way.  In living as God has called us, we redeem this world so that politically, socially, spiritually, economically, and morally it looks and feels more like the kingdom of the one who sent out the twelve saying “…as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”   That is the mark toward which we ought to aim our lives, that those whom we encounter would experience the wonder of God’s grace, the depth of God’s mercy and the nearness of heaven from our actions and our words.

As the church, we are not always such a people.  In fact, in some ways the church has become an impediment to grace, mercy and the nearness of heaven for some people. Bad experiences, judgmental words and “holier than thou” attitudes have left them cut off from God and convinced that there is no good reason to do anything to remedy the situation.  They conclude confidently that if God is anything like those who so freely speak for him, then grace and mercy are not to be found.

Yet, we know that such is not the case.  We know God is gracious and that God’s mercy is deep and wide.  God has freely given that grace to us.  We know that God loves us.  So, it is all the more imperative for us to be the race, the priesthood, the nation, and the people that God has called us to be.  In darkness, we did not know God.  We did not know God’s love for us.  In knowing God and sharing God’s love and grace with others, we move further into that marvelous light. In denying others God’s mercy, failing to share God’s love with others, we not only push them back into the darkness, but we turn our own lives back toward the darkness as well.

Who are we?  We are the church, the body of Christ, living according to his call on our lives, to his teachings in our minds, and to his love in our hearts, so that the darkness of this world might be overcome by his marvelous light.

KJV: Happy 400th Birthday!

When Thomas Helwys, co-founder and leader of early Baptists, wrote, “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them,” the king he was referring to was none other than King James of KJV fame. The spiritual truth of Helwys’ words seems obvious now, but such was not the case when he first wrote them. They were deemed treasonous by the king and they landed Helwys in prison,where he died four years later, all because he believed that government had no business governing the consciences of men and women, nor dictating to them the manor or object of their worship. Freedom of religion was not merely a noble idea for Helwys and other early Baptists. It was a deeply held, heartfelt conviction for which they were willing to give their lives.

It seems more than a little ironic 400 years later that so many Baptists cling tenaciously to the Bible authorized by King James while they have conveniently forgotten the price paid by their Baptist forebears at his very hand to set free the moral and religious yearnings of men and women. Long before any nation’s constitution prohibited the government establishment of religion, or limits on the free exercise of religion, early Baptists were living like they were already free to do so regardless of the consequences. At least part of King James’ motivation for authorizing a translation of the Bible was so that he could better control the religious practices of his subjects.  He thought that if he could control what they were reading that he could control them.

While King James’ Bible did not fully serve the purpose he had in mind, it has certainly had a profound impact on the world. The anniversary of its publication is certainly worth noting and celebrating. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite KJV quotes.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day: and the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” (Isaiah 58:6-11)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:1-5)

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

“And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:33-40)

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:15-17)

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

These are some of mine. What are some of your favorite verses in the King James Bible?

Looking on the Heart

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I Samuel 16:7

The Lord had sent Samuel to meet the new king that the Lord had already chosen. The going wisdom would have suggested that the new king would be someone that looked like Saul — big and strong of stature. Yet, that was not the case. Samuel, like all of us mortals, was impressed with the outward appearance while the Lord was looking deeper.

I was in a restaurant recently that had menus with pictures in them. As I was glancing through the menu a sandwich caught my eye.  It was different. Different enough that I decided to order it. When my order arrived and I tasted the sandwich that had looked so appetizing in the menu, my first thought was, “What was I thinking.” It looked good in the menu, but on the plate, it was not what I thought it was going to be.

Aesop’s ancient story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing still illustrates well the length to which appearances can deceive as well as the tragic consequences of such deception.

A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs.  But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep.  The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep’s clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.

When I heard the news that our nation was involved in another military action in still another nation, I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “The Bible says that there will be wars and rumors of wars.”  If the Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars, who are we to think, act or speak otherwise?  I have heard people cite scripture in that way all my life as if citing a word or phrase from scripture removes the need to read the rest of what Jesus said about war, violence and human interaction.  Like the wolf in Aesop’s story, a word of scripture is slipped over a situation and deception follows.  Never mind what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and acting with love and compassion toward others.  To be certain, there will be wars and rumors of wars so long as human beings fail to love as Christ taught us to love.  Jesus acknowledges this reality, he does not endorse it.

Hearing Jesus statement, “For you always have the poor with you,” cited in response to the plight of the less fortunate is not unusual. But in that statement Jesus is not predicting the future or dictating it, he is acknowledging the logical outcome of a society that values self interest over common good.  The words of Jesus, inappropriately cloaked over the day-to-day challenges of living in poverty, deceive us, as surely as the sheepskin covering the wolf, into thinking that men and women living in poverty somehow is part of  God’s design for creation. What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words?  I do not know, but perhaps he spoke of them in a resigned way while thinking, “You will always have the poor with you as long you extend tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations among you and then seek to balance your budget and reduce your deficit by cutting the programs and services that provide safety nets and opportunity to the neediest among you.”

Appearances can be, and often are, deceiving. While some might say there is lack of money to help the poor and the needy, others would say that the poor and needy are just not high enough on the list of priorities.  After all, we find the money to bail out banks and automotive companies, to fight wars and to offer tax advantages to those who don’t really need them, yet for the hungry, the homeless, the elderly and the working poor what few dollars we allocate to assist them must be cut in order to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Seeing God in our Weakness

In spite of what you may have heard this week, we have not started an ark-building ministry at Ball Camp Baptist Church, though there were times on Monday when I wondered if some sort of watercraft might be necessary to get around, considering how much water was falling from the sky.  Who knew that so much rain could fall in such a short amount of time?  Fortunately, our facility stayed dry on the inside.  This is no small gift when we remember some of the problems we have dealt with in recent years.

Some of our neighbors were without electricity during Monday’s storm.  I had one friend in Chattanooga who was without power for 19 hours.  She was excited to have power again after going without it.  “We don’t realize what we take for granted!”  Electricity is one of the many aspects of 21st Century living that we have grown accustomed to experiencing without thinking about it.  We take for granted conveniences that caused eyes to pop and minds to swirl when they where first introduced.  Those conveniences have given us more control over lives, more time to do what we want to do, as well as what we need to, and in some cases to do those things better.  When they are taken away from us we are limited and vulnerable, no longer able to do and control the aspects of our living that we could with them.

Those moments that startle us and reveal to us our vulnerabilities do not come to us only when the electricity is not working.  We get reminders of the ways that life is beyond our control all the time.  As our children cross developmental milestones, we learn new ways where we are not in control.  When the company we work for closes its doors for the last time, we get reminded of our vulnerability.  Unexpected news from the doctor does the same thing to us.  We don’t like being vulnerable or out of control.  We seem programmed to respond to such situations by trying to minimize the ways that we are vulnerable.  We work to get some kind of control over whatever it is — our children, our career, or our health — that has disturbed our sense of being in charge of our lives.  We do our best to quickly move on and move beyond the situation and the uncomfortable feelings that came with it.

If we pause in the midst of our crisis, or take some time after it passes to reflect upon it, we might be surprised at what we see mingled in the reflection of our own vulnerability and weakness.  Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby?   Who needs more help than a little baby needing to be bathed, fed and loved?  Yet, because of God’s great need to be in loving relationship with us, God became not just human, but the most vulnerable of humans needing to be fed, bathed and loved.   Henri Nouwen describes God coming to us this way:  “Who can be afraid of a little child that needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided?  We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely.  But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us.  How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be ‘God-with-us’ and needs us to become ‘Us-with-God’?”

The mystery and wonder of God is that God wants to be loved by us as much as God loves us.  On the good days, we may take for granted the goodness of God’s provision in our lives.  On the days when we feel like we are not in control of our lives, we can recall that God has taken away the distance that once separated us from God, not with God’s great strength, but with God’s willingness to become a child laying in a manger.

Living Bent Over Lives

When Jesus had set the bent-over woman free from her ailment and rebuked the leader of the synagogue for his protest of a Sabbath healing, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.” For the most part, Jesus did well with crowds. Of course, there were some rough spots. At the very beginning, while he was discussing his inaugural sermon, the crowd became so angry that they wanted to throw him over a cliff. The Gospel of Mark adds that Jesus was not able to do any deeds of power in his hometown because he was amazed at their lack of faith, though he did lay hands on a few sick people and cure them. Then, at the end, there was the crowd that kept yelling for the release of Barabbas and calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. In between, Jesus taught, fed and healed crowd after crowd.

Crowds seem to be gathering everywhere these days. From Egypt to Wisconsin, and from North Africa to the Middle East, people have gathered to give expression to their common needs and hopes.  Yet, they are not just crowds. They are also individuals with their own unique experiences of life, their own trials, and their own wounds.

In her book, Living with Contradiction Esther de Waal tells the story of a grief-stricken mother who had lost her son. It is a story that reminds us that each face in whatever crowd we find ourselves has known its own suffering.

In a certain village a young boy fell ill and died. His mother was inconsolable. Many of her friends tried to comfort her, but she said nothing would ease her grief unless her son was brought back to life. She went to the doctor, but he shook his head and said it was impossible. The wise woman with her herbs and spells said it was beyond her power, and so did everyone else the mother approached. Eventually she came to the hut of an old monk living as a hermit deep in the forest and asked him if he could restore her son to life. “Certainly,” said the monk. “What do I have to do?” the woman cried, delighted that at last someone was able to help her. “Go back to your village,” the monk said, “and bring me a cup of milk from a house which has never known suffering, and I will restore your son to life.”  The woman set off thinking of all her happy neighbors. But as she went from hut to hut even the liveliest of families had to tell her that pain, suffering and death had at some time visited them, and though they were joyful now, it had not always been so. The woman went back to the monk with an empty cup. “Could you not find one house without suffering to give you a cup of milk?” he asked. “No,” she answered. “Now I see that there is no life without suffering, and no suffering that cannot be overcome.”

We live in a world full of people bent over by many things. For some it is poverty. Others deal daily with their own sickness or caring for a sick loved one. Unjust governments and corrupt leaders make life almost more than some people can bear. Some are weighed down by relationships that are not what they need for them to be. Still others struggle to find their place in the world, and its meaning and purpose for them. Many are plagued by addictions.

Jesus never promises us that we will not be bent over and weighed down by the challenges and difficulties that we face in this life. Suffering does indeed come to every life; and with Christ beside us and in us, we are able to overcome. His promise to be with us in the midst of it and walk with us as we go through it surrounds us with hope and courage when we might otherwise resign ourselves to staying bent over. A time of trial in our lives, or the suffering caused by a particular situation in which we find ourselves, should never be seen as an indication that God is especially displeased with us. What it means is that we have something in common with the rest of the crowd of people that populate our planet, none of whom live in houses that have never known suffering. The one who suffers for us also suffers with us; and when we are bent over from the weight of our suffering, he helps us to stand.

Lusting for the Apocalyse, Really?

To be honest, his letter to the editor startled me. He wrote in what I imagine he thought were frank and honest words, emphatically suggesting that Christianity was a “doomsday cult” that thrived among “illiterate peasants.”  While I am troubled not at all by being associated with illiterate peasants, his description of Christians as members of a doomsday cult struck me as over the top.  He argued that since Jesus has not returned, Christianity has failed.  With dismay, he expressed his frustration that so many Christians are still waiting.  They “eagerly lust for the apocalypse” was how he described those who are still looking for Jesus to return.  While I have known Christians who have lusted, I do not recall any of them lusting for the apocalypse.  In making his conclusion that Jesus was dead and never coming back, he asserted that, “We’re on our own here.”

The words “We’re on our own here” were the saddest part of the whole letter to me.  Of all the dimensions of my faith in Jesus Christ, few of them are dearer to me than the reminder, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Yet, the writer of this letter has concluded that we are on our own, without the presence of the One who promised to never leave us nor forsake us.  Even as I grieve for him, I am reminded that faith is indeed a gift.  Those who have received it ought always to be grateful for it.  If anything is evident from this letter, it is that its writer has not been given the gift of faith.  His conclusions about life and how to live it have not brought him to a positive understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ, but rather have left him hostile and antagonistic.

Where does a newspaper originate that publishes a letter so antagonistic toward God and religion?  Is it to be found in some atheistic state where the letter writer would have his views reinforced at every level of society?  No, it was published here in Knoxville where it is not much exaggeration to say that there is a church on every corner.  How could someone surrounded by so many people who profess faith in Christ have such a negative view of Christianity and Christians?  Did something happen?  Did someone who professed to be a Christian do something to hurt or harm him in some way?  I hope that is not the case.  I hope that for some inexplicable reason the writer of this letter has yet to see the love and compassion of Jesus Christ embodied in such a way that would bring him to faith; and when that happens, he will believe.

I am aware that there are many people in the world who are indifferent to the teachings of Jesus.  At the same time, I know that there are many people who affirm some or even all of the basic idea of Christianity, yet do little to let those ideas influence how they live their lives.  What is surprising to me about this letter writer is not what he wrote — that has been written many time in many places — but that I might have stood behind him in the checkout line at the grocery store.

His letter reminds me of how important it is for us to share with gentleness what has been freely given to us.  The rich gift of God’s gracious presence with us is not merely ours to receive, but also to share.  Nor is it just ours to share but ours to live; so that in our living, it is visible in us for all to see.

The writer of this letter seems firmly convinced of the correctness of his opinions.  To convince him otherwise would be difficult, if not impossible.  He will have to see Jesus to believe.  Perhaps it will be the Christ in you that warms his heart to the reality of God. Maybe it will be the tenderness of Christ in your words and deeds that breaks through his wall of unbelief.  Seeing the mercy and compassion of Christ in you, he may yet discover the joy of being in the arms of the One who has made him.

Let us not stop at being careful that the writer of this letter and those who share his viewpoint see something of Jesus in our lives.  Jean Vanier says, “The very way you look at people can help to transform them.”  When we look at those who are indifferent to, opposed to, or even hostile to the gospel, let us always see a human being who bears the image of God no more or no less than we ourselves do.

What Was Jesus Thinking?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? For a long time, these words from Micah 6:8 have been a summary for me of what it means to be in relationship with God.  The Bible is a big book.  Understanding it requires time and study.  People have been reading it for many years so there is a vast history of interpretation to take into consideration, as well as the beliefs and practices that it has inspired in various groups of believers through the centuries.  While I have in no way exhausted the sources of information that would shed light on ways of relating to God,  I have grown increasingly comfortable with Micah’s words as a summation of the teachings of scripture.  Even though these same words often make me uncomfortable when I fail to act justly, love kindness, and my walk with the Lord is less than humble, they nonetheless point towards the life to which God invites us.

To read these words as prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to be reminded that his life and ministry was nurtured and fed by the Hebrew prophets.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:10-11)

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

When he worshipped he would have found himself, with every other child of Abraham, singing from the Psalms.  I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

Thus was his heart filled and his thought shaped when he went up the mountain that day and having sat down he began to speak, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .