#PrayingforBoston

Did you find yourself praying for Boston this week? While you were praying for Boston, did you think of Newtown?  As you were thinking of Newtown, did you remember Virginia Tech?  When you were remembering Virginia Tech, did Aurora, Columbine or 9/11 come to mind?

If you found yourself praying, you were not alone. When the news comes that another death-filled event has occurred, instinctively we grieve and we pray for those who have been impacted by the tragic violence. When our prayers are finished and our tears have all been shed, the questions start. Why did this happen?  The explanations, many and varied as they are, are never enough to make what has happened make sense. Somehow someone became hateful enough, angry enough, or mentally deranged enough to think that violence was a good idea. Yes, we can all see that now, but why? As elusive as an answer to the why question is, the answer to the question of whether or not something like this will happen again is painfully obvious. Yes, it will happen.

Our question becomes more pressing once we acknowledge that it could happen again. Our question then becomes: “Could it happen to us? Could it happen to people we know and love?”  Of course, it can happen again and it can happen to us.

Can anything be done to prevent such violence? We would like to think so. We would like to think that law enforcement agencies could be more effective in their task. We would like to think that the people who work in the fields of security and intelligence could make us more secure and better identify potential threats. We would like to think that ordinary citizens would be more diligent in noticing out-of-place strangers doing the unexpected in places where they would not ordinarily be. We would like to think that our political leaders would make reasonable and good laws that would enhance our safety and security. We would like to think all these things and yet we know that a determined person meaning to do evil is not easy to stop.

In light of such sobering reality, what do we expect of people of faith? What do we expect of followers of Jesus Christ? What can we do in the face of evil? We can do what Christ has called us to do, we can love. When violence becomes more and more senseless, we love. When evil seems to surround us like the darkness of the darkest night, we love. When tragedy after tragedy pushes us toward despair, we love. We love because it is what Christ has called us to do.  We love not because it makes sense in a logical, pragmatic way. It does not. We love not because love works in a mechanical or formulaic way. It does not always consistently produce a desired outcome and at times it can seem to produce no results at all.

However, love does work. It works on us. When we love instead of hate we resist becoming the evil that so frightens us. When we forgive instead of letting retribution and revenge take root in our souls we resist becoming the despair and bitterness that nurtures so much of the violence we see in the world. When we show mercy instead of demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we resist becoming blind to the possibility of new day, a new heaven, and new earth.

We know that we are not living in the world God meant to create. The God who has saved us is the same God who is still reclaiming, reconciling, recreating and redeeming God’s creation. When we love, we join our lives with God who is making all things new.  The agony of the Jesus’ prayer in the garden the night before his crucifixion makes clear the difficulty of choosing to love. The empty tomb on Easter morning makes clear that love is our only hope.

Using God to Bully

Did you know that in the State of Tennessee there is a law against bullying in schools?  It allows local school districts to develop policies to ensure that students are protected from physical harm, threats of physical harm, and actions that would create a hostile educational environment.

Current attempts to change this law are concerned about the rights of students to express religious opinions.  In other words, some people want to change this law so that it will be permissible for students to express their religious opinions even if expressing those religious opinions creates a hostile educational environment for the student to whom they are being expressed.  For example, Muslim students, who pray five times daily, would be free to criticize Christian students about their lack of devotion to God because they do not pray with as much frequency.  Unitarian students could constantly pester Trinitarian students about their inability to adequately explain the Trinity.  Mormon students could demean Protestant students for their unwillingness to be baptized for their dead ancestors. In short, as long as what a student says to or about another student would be permitted as long as it was based on the speaker’s religious beliefs.

Of course, those seeking to amend the law are not primarily, if at all, concerned about the rights of Muslim, Unitarian or Mormon students.  What they are really concerned about is that no law would prohibit a good Christian student from telling and informing a student that is homosexual or perceived to be homosexual of his or her eternal destination or how God really feels about him or her.

The fact that the effort to change this law to allow students to use their religious beliefs to bully others is being led by a group, the Family Action Council of Tennessee that purports to hold up biblical values, makes the endeavor even more ironic.  If a group of Christians were going to get something from the Bible written into the laws of a state, why not something like, “…do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” or “…love one another as I have loved you?”  Why not something that reflects the core of Jesus’ teachings?

This effort to use religion to justify bullying is an example of a group trying to use their religion to maintain their perceived notion of society rather than allowing their religion to inform and shape how they impact their culture.  There is quite enough hatred and intolerance in our world.  Seeing adults trying to pass that hatred on to our children is a sad sight, no matter how sophisticated and sanitized their effort might be.

I am reminded of the Anne Lamont quote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  The God of the New Testament is not one of hate, not one that desires to be used to bully students into feeling left out, isolated, and alone.  The God of the New Testament is one who took on flesh and came to dwell among us so that we would know that we are loved. That same God promised to never leave us alone, but to always be with us.  That God calls us into the world to love with the same radical love with which we ourselves have been loved.

When we find ourselves loving someone we never thought we could, then we may find ourselves approaching the love that Christ has for us.  When we discover ourselves loving someone we never had any reasons to notice, then we may be getting close to the love Christ has for us.  Christ’s love for us is unconditional, unwarranted, unearned, yet freely given.  We are called not just to receive it, but to share it.

Enter the Story

This Sunday is the third Sunday of our Advent Conspiracy at Ball Camp Baptist Church. This is the Sunday for us to more fully enter the story of Christmas, the story of God coming into the World. This Sunday, as we worship, we will seek to enter this amazing story by giving more; giving more of our time, our gifts and our resources. By more fully entering the story of Christmas, we become participants. More than listening to the story, we want to live it. In living it, we want to join with other followers of Christ sharing the story so that others can hear it and experience the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Chaouki & Maha Boulos share and live the story of Christ’s birth in the country of Lebanon. As we give more this Sunday, we enter the story of Christmas alongside the Bouloses as they tell the story of  grace and mercy in the region of the world where Jesus was born.

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.

An Evening Prayer

Almighty God, you who are eager to find and to hold each one us,

we call out to you as the darkness of night begins to surround us.

May the light you so freely give remain within us and before us

even in the deepest depths of the coming night.

 

You who reach for us and bend toward us as we grope around

the dim edges of life sustain us and keep us.

Hold us this night and every night ‘til the morning comes

and we find ourselves bathed in your glorious light forevermore.

Talking Like God

I was listening to my sister explain to my niece why she could not spend the night at her Aunt Patti’s house.  My sister had to make several attempts at explaining why the night was not a good night for her to sleep over.  At the conclusion of what would be her final effort, she ended her reasonable and logical explanation with an emphatic, “…and that is the end of it, because Momma says so.”  The conclusion was when I stopped listening to my sister and started hearing my mother.  There are all kinds of ways that my sister is different from my mother, but I chuckled to myself as I heard my mother’s words coming out of her mouth.  We learn the vocabulary of living from those who are closest to us.  It gives me pause to think what I have taught my boys.  What will it feel like if one day I hear my words coming out their mouths as they speak to those who are nearest and dearest to them?

Words are what we use to communicate with each other.  What we mean by them can be easily misunderstood if how we use and understand them is different from how the person we are speaking to uses and understands them.  Our tone, volume, body posture and attitude can also impact the message we are trying to communicate with our words.

Words can hurt and words can bless.  Words spoken by us can encourage someone to discover the joy of life, and they can also leave wounds that will be a long time healing.  Sometimes we speak before we think.  Our intention would never be to hurt or to harm someone, but a word or phrase slips out and the damage is done.  Words are powerful. They can nurture and grow a life, or they can tear it down.

Words are used all the time in our world, not just in our closest relationships.  They are the tool that anyone who has something they want us to know, think about, or act upon gets his or her message to us.  Politicians who want our votes throw words at us.  Retailers who want us to buy their products throw words at us.  Criminals who would deceive us with a fraudulent scheme throw words at us.

Words are everywhere and they come at us all the time these days.  Facebook, email, and texting allow words to come our way on a virtually continual basis without us even speaking with another human being.  How do we process all those words?  Is there a danger, in the midst of so many words, that words will have less meaning, or over load our capacity to process them, understand them, make sense of them, and respond to them accordingly?

With all the words that are zipping through our lives each day, it is no wonder there are times when we miss the Word that God spoke to us so long ago, and is still speaking to us today, “…the Word that took on flesh and lived among us.”  When God wanted to speak to us the deepest longing of the heart of God, God left words behind and came to us.  The Word God spoke was God in the flesh with us.  We know God because God came to us.

In times of difficulty and challenge, God still speaks.  God is still with us.  In times of grief, God is still with us.  In times of joy, God is still speaking.  In all of our days, in all of our living, the Word that took on flesh and lived among us is still with us. That Word still holds out to us “…the power to become the children of God.”

The challenge for us seems to be one of discernment.  Is it possible for us to distinguish the Word that God is speaking into our lives from all of the other words that fill up our world?  Are we willing to so position our lives in proximity to God that the Word God is speaking to us becomes our language, our way of communicating with the world around us, and interacting with it — so that as we live, our lives speak of forgiveness, mercy, peace, hope and redemption?  Ultimately, what God said to us by taking on flesh and coming to be with us is that we are loved.  Can the Word that God spoke to us, and is still speaking to us, be spoken through us?

It can, if we make time to listen to God.  If all we ever listen to are the voices that clamor for our attention, then we can never hope to speak with any other language.  Nor can we hope to see life from any other perspective than that of those clamoring voices.  Let us listen to God so that our lives will tell the story of God’s great love for all of us. As children of God, let us repeat the sounding joy over and over again.

Immanuel

Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time?  I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season.  The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings —  might even come as a surprise to some people.  Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance.  In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own.  Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.

But what if what you need is God?  The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming.  We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another.  But what if what you really need is God?  What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction?  We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway.   “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign.  A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do.  She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.”  Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3).  The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will.  She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.

For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God.  In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.  We see God coming to us and saving us.  Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations.  To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless.  Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas.  When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.

Yet, we miss it.  Perhaps our situation is not dire enough.  Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side.  Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord.  We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking.  The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves.   Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble.  Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God?  Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.

Just a Game?

There are occasions when football is more than just a game; times when it reminds us of our better selves. Visitors from Oregon took the time to write a letter to the News-Sentinel expressing their kind regards for the hospitality they received while visiting Knoxville for the Tennessee/Oregon game. They were particularly impressed when The Pride of the Southland turned to face the section of the stadium where most of the visiting Oregon fans were sitting played the Oregon fight song.

That impresses me as well. Every time that I am in the stadium, hearing Tennessee’s band play the visiting team’s fight is one of my favorite parts of the game day experience. When you think about how much “Rocky Top” means to Tennessee fans, you have to consider that other fans appreciate their fight song just as much.  There is nothing quite as comforting as hearing something familiar when you find yourself in a strange and new place. One could argue that the band is doing too good of a job at making guests feel welcome, but I don’t think so. I think their playing the visitor’s song is a kindness and courtesy that speaks well of the University and the State.

What is also interesting to note is what does not happen after the band plays the visitor’s fight song. The Tennessee fans remain Tennessee fans. No one takes off their orange and starts putting on the other team’s colors. The band definitely does not forget how to play “Rocky Top.”  In other words, it is possible to be kind and respectful to people who are different from us without ceasing to be whom we are. We do not sacrifice our loyalties by being thoughtful and courteous to those whose loyalties are different from ours.  In a world that seems excessively prone to the darkness of division and discord, a little thoughtfulness can be a great light.

Still another instance of football pointing us toward our better selves occurred when Ike Ditzenberger scored his first varsity touchdown. Ike is a seventeen year-old junior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Washington. What makes Ike different from his teammates and most every other high school football player in the country is that he has Down syndrome.  Every day at practice, on the last play of practice, Ike’s coach calls his play. The quarterback hands the ball to Ike and he runs it in for a touchdown.

Last week with ten seconds remaining in the game and Snohomish trailing Lake Stevens by a score of 35-0, Ike Ditzenberger entered the game to run his play. Run he did, fifty-one yards all the way to end zone. At the end of his run, he was very happy.

Yes, I know that the only reason he scored was everybody on the field wanted him to; and that if the opposing team had wanted to, they could have easily tackled him. But they did not. Because they did not, Ike was able to realize a life-long dream. Sure, his team lost; but they are not losers. People who help other people achieve long-held dreams are winners. People who create experiences of great joy in the lives of others are winners. People who share the bright lights of Friday night with one who some might think has no business being there are winners.

These two events could have taken place anywhere, and they could have involved most anyone. What makes them special to me is that they just seem to ooze Christ likeness. If Jesus was the drum major at the University of Tennessee, I can easily see Him playing the visiting team’s fight song. If He was a high school football coach, I would not be at all surprised to learn that He found a way to get a player with special challenges onto the field.  Christ came into the world to heal brokenness and to reconcile division. There are times when we are reminded that He is still at work doing just that. There are times when those reminders come from unexpected places, even football fields.

What Good is Burning a Qur’an?

September 11, 2001 is one of those dates that will always be with us. The events of that day were such that many people remember where they were when they heard or saw the news.  More to the point, they remember what they felt when they saw the news. In the shock and horror of it all, feelings of fear, vulnerability, and grief mingled with anger and a desire to strike back at those who wrought such devastation and terror on our country.

Nine years later, the feelings are still mixed and mingled.  The means of coping with the tragedy and trying to live beyond it are varied. Susan Retik lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, she turned her attention toward Afghanistan. Her thinking was that there were widows there like her and that there would likely be more. Looking for ways to improve their lives, she and Patti Quigley, who was also widowed by the 9/11 attacks, founded Beyond the 11th. Both of these women had given birth shortly after the attacks to children who would never know their fathers. Remarkably, they also brought into being an organization that exists to empower widows in Afghanistan who have been afflicted by war, terrorism, and oppression. It supports programs that enable widows to support themselves and their families without begging in the street or standing in a breadline. They turned their grief toward the very country where the attacks on their husbands were conceived, and sought to do something good for others.

This weekend Ms. Retik, a Jewish woman, will continue her efforts on behalf of Afghan widows by speaking at a mosque in Boston. She will invite that Muslim community to join her in bringing hope and stability to lives of women who have lost their husbands.

If a Jewish woman and a Muslim community are coming together to act in such Christ-like ways, how then are the Christians acting?  You have probably already heard about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. These folks will mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by hosting “International Burn a Koran Day.”  This event, rather than moving beyond the pain and fear of 9/11, is designed to renew the pain and inflict it on others. This so-called pastor and those that follow him are anathema to Muslims, an embarrassment to Americans, and a shame to the cause of Christ.  Beyond the Jones’ proverbial “15 minutes of fame,” nothing good can come of this event, and much that is bad very well could result.

The good news is that most Christians and Americans understand that this act is a contradiction of the best values of the Christian faith and our American heritage. To underscore this point, persons of all faiths in Gainesville have been invited to Trinity United Methodist Church for a “Gathering of Peace, Understanding and Hope.”  Dan Johnson, Trinity’s Senior Pastor writes:

We call upon the news media to give this as much attention (or more) than the attention they have given to the disturbing actions planned by the Dove World Outreach Center, so that around the globe, all people will know that the Gainesville community, made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and more, can be both deeply committed to their respective faiths and at the same time, live in harmony and peace with one another.  We dare to believe and hope that this disturbing action by a very small and misguided group might become the catalyst for one community, Gainesville, to model a way of living in harmony, mutual respect and peace.  The God I know is in the habit of taking “what was intended for evil and turning it into good (Genesis 50:20), and I believe God will do it again.

If people of different faiths can come together in Gainesville to foster understanding and peace and hope, perhaps we could do it in Knoxville as well. Perhaps good can prevail over evil and love over hate.

Touching Lives

If you have been to the University of Tennessee Medical Center lately, you may have seen a life-size picture of one our church members.  The Medical Center is using the photo of Jami Ward to promote the Medical Center’s Guardian Angel program.  It has been in use for some time now.

I saw it again this week. I guess I was finally over the excitement of seeing someone I know on display in such a prominent way, because I read the caption for the first time. The caption said, “Who’s touched your life today?”  What a powerful question next to the face of someone who works in an intensive care unit for infants.  Every day Jami touches the lives of families as she cares for what is most precious to them.

As I let the caption rest in my mind, I saw another face from our church family.  It was not Jami’s this time, but that of young girl who I met for the first time when she was a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Years later, her smile now regularly brightens our hallways at church.  I thought of that little girl’s family and their amazing love for her; love so strong and so deep that it gave life to her not by chance, but by choice.  Touching lives indeed.

The kind of love that Jesus talked about, demonstrated with his actions and that ultimately carried him to the cross, is love like that.  It is rooted in real time and touches human beings in noticeable ways. Yet, it is not confined to the moment in which it is demonstrated or to the person or persons toward which it is directed. The love of Christ has a carryover effect. When we are loved by Christ, or loved with Christ’s love by one of his followers, a residue of grace lingers in our lives.

To be loved is the most basic of human needs.  When we experience it, we do not soon forget.  If at times we live as though we have forgotten the moments we felt loved, still the experience of it remains.  In it we felt acceptance.  This is different than the validation we sometimes receive for doing the things we do. No, to be loved with the love of Christ is a gift. We may long for it, yet it is not offered to us because we merit it, but because there is something in the nature of it that compels those who have experienced it to share it.  Our lives are transformed by such love.

As I think about Jami’s picture and the caption over it, I can easily imagine a number of other faces in our church that would fit appropriately under it.  Faces that bear the names of people who are the answer to the question, “Who touched your life today?”  Whether it is a formal role as teacher or caregiver, or in less formal ways as friend or neighbor, sharing the love of Christ in even a seemingly insignificant way can touch a person’s life in such a way that he or she is transformed by it, marked by it, so much so, that later in that person’s life, he or she is compelled in big ways and small ways to share that same love.

Touching lives is what we do as followers of Christ. Someone, perhaps several people, touched our lives with the love of Christ; and having been touched with such love, we are compelled by that love to touch the lives of others.