Stop the Hate

Thank you to Ethicsdaily and to the Knoxville News-Sentinel for sharing the love I tried to write about in Using God to Bully.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from
The Brothers Karamazov

Sadly, so many today see love not as a strong force for transformation, but as a weakness. Dostoyesky’s words are a helpful reminder that love is more powerful than we realize.

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Prince of Peace

There are times when events occur in such proximity to one another that making a connection between them happens whether such a connection is real or imagined.  As we celebrate the birth of Christ just a few days after the last truck carrying American troops left Iraq and entered Kuwait, thinking of one in light of the other comes easily.  Whether it was the planning of a clever politician or a thoughtful general, the providence of God, or pure coincidence, a soldier’s homecoming at this special time of year would seem just as sweet whatever the cause.

Except that not everyone is coming home.  Since 2,996 people died on September 11, 2001, nearly 4,500 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq, and almost another 1,900 in Afghanistan.  Almost 50,000 veterans are at home living with wounds suffered while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  While troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan sometime in 2014, they are not yet home.

The service that so many have rendered on our behalf is deserving of our gratitude and our respect.  Rightfully, such sacrifice and dedication is esteemed by those on whose behalf it has been made.  We have prayed and we will continue to pray for those who are still in harm’s way, and for those who are grieving the impact of these wars on their families and on themselves.  For those who wait for a child who will not be coming home, and for those who welcome home sons and daughters broken and scarred by war, we pray.  They need our prayers, and they deserve our appreciation.

In the midst of war and all the terrible pain it inflicts on those whom it touches, one wonders if the singing of angels can still be heard.  Perhaps we would not hear one angel.  But in this holy season, what about one angel joined by a multitude of the heavenly host?  Would we, could we hear them saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace . . .”?

What would we do if there was a child among us who believed that loving one’s enemies, praying for one’s persecutors, and turning the other cheek was something that God expected of those whom God created?  What if there was a child among us who insisted on treating others as he or she wanted to be treated, rather than the way he or she had been treated?  Having read our scriptures, such a child might refuse to pick up the sword and join in the violence that so pervades our world.

Would we in the church pray for such a child?  If so, how would we pray?  Would we respect the courage of such conviction or would we consider it cowardly?  Would such a refusal seem to us to be heroic or traitorous?  Would we appreciate and respect such behavior, or would it leave us mildly uncomfortable, or maybe even visibly upset?

Yet, a child has been born, and he is in our midst.  We like to think that the words of the prophet Isaiah give description to him. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What does it mean for us that this child has been born?  Well, it means everything to us, it means eternity to us.  The birth of this child is our very salvation.  If it means that much, then we ought to be able to ponder the conclusions about the war in Iraq of Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam combat veteran, and retired Army colonel; and whose son was an Army officer killed in Iraq. “The final tragedy of a tragic enterprise is that the U.S. has learned next to nothing,” he says.  “The belief that war works remains strangely intact.”

If the birth of this child means as much as we say it means, then we ought to be able to hear the words Logan Trainum spoken at the funeral of one of his closest friends, David Emanuel Hickman.  Surely he is not the only grieving friend to have spoken them or at least thought them.  His friend, Hickman, was the last American soldier to be killed in Iraq.  “There aren’t enough facts available for me to have a defined opinion about things.  I’m just sad, and pray that my best friend didn’t lay down his life for nothing.”

If the birth of this child means any of what we say that it means, we ought to take to heart the words of the poet, Archibald MacLeish, who wrote for those who could no longer speak, yet still had something to say,

They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us.  …

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.

What if Christmas was about Christ?

That night when Jesus was born, how many people new what was happening?  Think about it for a minute — how many people new that God was being born?  Did anyone know that incarnation was happening?  Who knew that God was taking on flesh in order to dwell among us?  Who knew that God was so in love with us that God was coming to be with us?  Was anyone thinking that God was so radically intent on being reconciled with God’s creation?

Mary and Joseph had an idea that something special was happening.  Elizabeth and Zechariah might have known, along with a few other family members, perhaps.  The shepherds, of course, get clued in by a heavenly visitation.  Eventually, there will be visitors from the east.  Herod will be briefed on what they believe has happened.  Beyond a handful of people, most of the world’s population had no idea that anything significant, much less world changing, happened on that first Christmas.

All these years later, some might argue that the birth of Christ has been changed by the world more than it has changed the world.  Christmas seems to be about many things that have little or nothing to do with God coming into the world in order redeem and reconcile human hearts.  Granted there are many opportunities to do good for the less fortunate during the holiday season, but for most people these are sandwiched into a hectic schedule that reduces them to obligation or afterthought, rather than focal point.  The truth of the matter is that Christmas has become an industry, an economic engine, that springs to life earlier and earlier each year, so that it can better serve the purpose to which it has devolved.  The air around Christmas is so polluted by the smog and debris of consumerism run amok that the Christ is hardly visible.

Some have seen a threat to Christmas in the practice of referring to the season as the holiday season, rather than Christmas.  Their aim is to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a laudable goal insofar as it goes.  One would think that a birthday celebration would, at a minimum, include the one for whom the celebration is being given.  But what purpose does it serve if the end result is still the same old hustle and bustle, the same cluttered and obstructed view of God entering our world in order to embrace us with an everlasting love.

We still live in a world that needs to experience the love God expressed so emphatically on that first Christmas.  How can the world ever hope to experience that love unless the body of Christ, the church, intentionally and practically shares that love?  We have been loved with that love and we know that it is not ours to enjoy just for ourselves.  It is ours to share.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough.  What if we did more than just keep Christ in Christmas?  What if we made Christmas about Christ?  What if Christmas was an event that could once again change the world?  This Christmas, at Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are conspiring together (literally, breathing together) to do just that.  By worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all, we are going to be a part of a Christmas that will change lives.  We are not alone in this conspiracy.  Others are breathing with us. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in the United States and around the world are daily striving to be the presence of Christ to those who have yet to fully realize the meaning of that first Christmas in their own lives.  As we seek to make Christmas more about Christ this year, their world and their lives may never be the same.

Being Thankful

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do.  Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?

For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.

For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.

When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude.  Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason —  our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.

In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.

With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.

“THX THO”

I was the only kid in school with a Buffalo Bills Jacket.  Santa Claus had brought it to me for Christmas.  Living in East Tennessee long before the Oilers moved to Nashville, Atlanta was the closest NFL team.  I decided at some point to be a Bills fan because of O.J. Simpson.  Yes, that O.J. Simpson.  I was young and so was he, but I loved to watch him run the ball.  I could have chosen the Dolphins, the Steelers or even the Cowboys. Those teams were all winning games and championships when I was a young; but I chose the Bills.

This past Sunday, the Bills lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in part because Steve Johnson dropped a pass that would have been a touchdown.  He actually dropped five passes during the course of the game, but the one that hurt Steve Johnson the most is the one that would have given the Bills the victory.  After the game, he tweeted this, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”  This was a lament if there ever was one.  It was written in all capital letters.  That means he was “SHOUTING” in the world of text/chat/twitter communications.  Literally, he was crying out to God, God who he praises 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Steve Johnson is not just a Buffalo Bill, but also a believer.

His next phrase, “AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!,” is the one that have led many observers of professional football to conclude that Johnson blamed God for the dropped ball that would have won the game.  Maybe that is what he did, but there is blame, and then there is blame.  I could imagine how expressing frustration, or disappointment, or even heartache could sound like blame.  To be certain, Johnson’s heart was aching as he left the postgame interview with tears in his eyes, walking out into a blustery Buffalo day, dressed in gym shorts and a sleeveless shirt. God gets blamed for a lot of things that God should not be blamed for; but God is big enough to handle one of God’s own expressing hurt and anguish.  In fact, if all of God’s creation cried out in lament, God could handle it.  No, God does not care about the outcome of the game, but God does care about the people who play the game.  Regardless of how they are playing or how they are feeling, God cares.  Whether players are praising, blaming or crying out in frustration, God cares.  Just like God cares when those of us who are not professional football players praise, blame, or cry out in frustration.

God always desires, more than anything else, to be in an intimate love relationship with each and every person that God has created.  Being in that sort of relationship with God, or striving to be in that sort of relationship with God, does not shield us from disappointment, from failure, or from dropped balls.  We can be smack in the middle of the best relationship with God that we could possibly have and still experience difficult challenges and heartbreaking defeats.  That may be one of the lessons Steve Johnson learned from his game against the Steelers.  At least, I hope that it is.

The last thing that Johnson said in his Tweeter post, “THX THO,” which is short for “thanks though,” makes me think that he may have already learned that lesson.  That Johnson, on what well might have been the most disappointing day of his professional life, could find it within himself to thank God anyway, speaks volumes about his understanding of God and life.  In it, I hear echoes of I Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  To Steve Johnson, best wishes and good luck for the rest of this season, as well as future ones; and thanks for reminding us to give thanks even on the hard days.

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.