Salt and Peace

When I read Jesus’ words about stumbling, I cringe. For the person who causes a little one to stumble, he states emphatically that drowning would be a more pleasant consequence than whatever it is that will eventually befall such people. Then, with brutal bluntness, he declares that chopped off hands and feet and plucked-out eyes that have caused one to stumble are preferable to hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

His exaggerated language certainly grabs the attention even in a twenty-first century culture desensitized to violence and brutality. Why such graphic language to make his point? Maybe because it is an important point and he wants to make sure that we get it. So he says what he says, and we come away knowing that his overstated word choice is only a literary device to underscore the importance of his point. But still, there is a faint whisper somewhere in our head that wonders if maybe he really meant what he said just the way he said it.

Spiritually speaking, could we ever find ourselves in a situation similar to Aron Ralston? Ralston was the hiker who got his hand and forearm pinned beneath a boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon. After five days of being trapped, he cut off his arm in order to save his life. No exaggeration, no hyperbole, he just did it because he realized that he was going to die if he did not do it.

While I am confident that Jesus does not intend for us to mutilate ourselves, I am just as certain that he does desire for us to handle our spiritual lives with a sense of urgency — to follow Christ as if what we do or do not do matters — knowing that in following him, we are making decisions that are a matter of life and death. We make our way in a world that is fraught with pits and snares eager to take from us the life that Christ has called us to.

After his vivid admonishment to separate ourselves from whatever would cause us to stumble, Jesus speaks of salt, and of being at peace with one another. What does it mean to have the salt in us that Jesus speaks of, and to be at peace with those around us?

I learned this week of the death of Chris Leggett. Chris was murdered on June 23, of this year in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Two days after his death, al-Qaeda issued a statement claiming responsibility for his death. Chris lived and worked there with his wife and four children. His job was to create learning opportunities for the poor in Mauritania’s capital and throughout the country. His work took him to prisons as he helped former inmates re-enter society. The training center where he worked taught people skills that would help them get jobs. The small business loan program that he directed impacted the lives of numerous people.

Chris grew up down the road in Cleveland, Tennessee. He attended First Baptist Church there, and graduated from Cleveland High School. He continued his education at Cleveland State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Chris walked in and around many of the same snares and pits that we have, yet he did not let them keep him from living the life to which Christ had called him. He was full of the salt of which Jesus speaks. He lived and died seeking to be the peace of Christ for those with whom he was sharing his life. May we each so flavor the lives that we touch as well as those that touch ours.

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Transforming Tragedy

September no longer arrives without bringing with it recollections of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Without effort or intent, the memories are just there when August ends. Images of buildings and planes, smoke and rubble find their way back to my mind. What a shocking and awful day that was for all of us.

September has had its share of tragedy and turmoil. In 1940, September marked the beginning of Germany’s blitz bombing campaign of Great Britain; similar in ways to our September 11th, only it lasted for nine months. In September of 1972, terrorists attacked the Israeli delegation at the Munich Olympic Games. Eleven Israelis, five terrorist and one police officer were killed. In 1957, when Arkansas students were heading back to school, then Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from enrolling in Little Rock Central High School. In 1901, the month saw U.S. president William McKinley assassinated in Buffalo, New York. In 1974, it was the month in which President Ford issued an unconditional pardon to former President Nixon, bringing to an end the Watergate affair.

Each of these events captured the attention of the world for days, weeks, and even longer. With the exception of President McKinley’s assassination, a movie has been made about each of these events. Interestingly, in the mid-90’s when the National Football League started a league in Europe, the nickname of the team in London was the Blitz. When a new scandal arises in Washington very often the suffix “gate” is attached to the end of whatever it is being called, thus recalling the government scandal to which all subsequent scandals would be compared. In some way they have each left their mark on our collective memory.

These moments in history, and others like them from other months, caused the world to stop in shock and disbelief. The fear, grief and disappointment that followed them changed the way people looked and thought about the world. In our lifetime, we have lived through some days that brought dreadful news to everyone everywhere. At the same time, we have lived through some days that brought their own dreadful news into our own lives. The rest of the world proceeded as usual while we lived through the pain of a broken marriage, the tragic death of a loved one, or the turmoil of losing a job. Our personal tragedies, no less than ones that we experience as a nation or a global community, also change the way we look and think about our lives and how we live them.

The challenge of the life and teachings of Jesus is to not let the events of history and our lives define who we are as people. Certainly we grieve when we experience loss, we are frightened when terror strikes, and we are sad when misfortune occurs. We experience what we experience and live through what we live through, yet the calling of Christ in our lives provides for us a lens through which to view those events, a filter through which to strain them that will not let us settle for being the sum of our life experiences. Instead, Jesus insists that our lives, our selves, are best defined by our relationship and our experience with him.

Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” Luke 6:20-23a

His words call us beyond our trials to transformation. From poverty, hunger, tears and hatred he proposes a kingdom, fullness, laughter and joy. The happenings of our lives could justifiably leave us bitter and cynical. Christ calls us to something more even as he lives with us through our trials and tragedies, never leaving us to face our perils alone. What has happen to us shapes who we are, but it is not who we are. We are children of God saved by his grace, transformed by his mercy and empowered by his spirit to join with him in letting fullness, laughter and joy reign in our lives and in our world.

Soldiers, Fathers, Mothers and Football

I wish that our country was not at war. I hate that circumstances in two countries reached the point where armed intervention was deemed necessary by those who make such decisions. What I hate more than the fact that such intervention was deemed necessary is that most of us find it all too easy to forget that men and women are wearing our countries uniform in harm’s way while we go about our lives as if all is normal. That disturbs me for two reasons. First, war being thought of as a normal state of affairs is unacceptable. Peace is normal, war is the exception. We will not always be at war. Second, going about our lives as if all is normal while fellow citizens serve on our behalf away from home and family demonstrates a deplorable lack of gratitude for their sacrifice and their service.

One of the joys of my life is watching my sons play ball. I have watched them play everything from T-ball to inline hockey. By far my favorite sport to watch them play is football. As I was watching Anderson Cooper 360 tonight he was in Afghanistan with a group of marines. I tried to imagine how hard it would be for me to be away from home this time of year while my youngest was playing football at home without me being there to watch. I am grateful that I don’t have to make that kind of choice or sacrifice. Many fathers and mothers have done just that. They are missing games, recitals, parent-teacher meetings, weekend outings, bedtime stories and the pride and satisfaction that comes from watching ones child get out the car and walk into school to start a new day of learning.

I wish that they were not missing those activities. I wish that they were home already. I pray that they will not miss many more. Until then, I pray for their well being and the well being of their families while offering my heartfelt thanks.

Andersonville

We stopped in Andersonville, Georgia, on the way home from Orlando. Andersonville was the site of a Civil War prison camp. At one time, over 32,000 Federal troops were held there. When the U.S. Government stopped exchanging prisoners, Andersonville quickly became overcrowded. It was originally built to hold 10, 000 prisoners. Unsanitary conditions and food shortages caused many deaths at Andersonville. Captain Henry Wirz was held accountable for those deaths. He was the only Confederate officer punished for war crimes after hostilities ended.

Today the National Prisoner of War Museum is located just a few hundred yards from the site where Andersonville prison once stood. The museum tells the story of prisoners of war from every war that our nation has fought. The images and descriptions of the experiences of these men and women are gut-wrenching. The trials that they endured were exceeded, in many cases, only by their determination to survive and their commitment to their country.

There is also a national cemetery at Andersonville. The first soldiers buried there were those who had died at the prison camp. The white stones that mark the graves were added later. How much later, I am not sure.

Several of those stones indicated that an unknown U.S. soldier was buried underneath it. I tried to count them, but I kept losing count. I was struck by the deep sadness of the word “unknown”. The circumstances of their dying left their identity unknown. Who marked their passing? Who spoke about them? Who recounted their deeds, their sacrifices? There was no one there to name their names.

Yet, I could not concede that they were altogether unknown. Someone knew the names of those unknown soldiers. Someone knew them once a long time ago. They had left homes and families. Mothers and wives knew them — knew who they were and why they had left. They had left towns and cities. Neighbors knew who they were and wished them well when they left, and prayed for them while they were gone.

What word did those mothers and wives hear when their unknown soldier was buried? Did anyone tell the neighbors that their prayers had been to no avail? When did the waiting stop and the hope cease that the one they had known so well would come home? Did the agony of uncertainty ever diminish in the hearts of those who had known one of the ones who had died unknown so far from home?

To know and to be known is a special gift that God gives to each of us. In knowing and being known, we experience the joy and the pain of human relationships. In knowing God and being known by God, we experience the hope and fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Knowing that God knows who we are is our greatest source of strength and security. If God knows us, God will never forget us.

I pray today that souls that once inhabited the bodies that lie in the ground beneath those stones marked unknown are, in fact, known by the One who can never forget.