Rush, Reminder & Revival

Monday was my first Martin Luther King Jr. day in Alabama. There was a march this morning. It ended in front of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church here in Phenix City. Before any marchers could be seen from the church, three police officers on motorcycles came into view. The officers were leading the march with their blue lights flashing. I imagine that the same thing was true for parades and marches all over the country today. There were police officers at the front leading the way. While it may be routine now for law enforcement to lead such parades and make sure that they come off in an orderly fashion, such has not always been the case. Their efforts to do so on this day gave me a rush, a reminder and a revival.

The rush was a feeling like the one I get when I see something good and pleasing. It was like the feeling I get when I see a friend or family member that I have not seen in a long time. It may have even approached that feeling I get when I watch a young daughter or son seeing a parent for the first time after a deployment overseas serving our country. The news we hear so often is not good news. Even when we hear good news, there seem to be detractors who try to convince us that it is not as good as we think it is or not good at all. It is possible for us to start thinking that good acts or good words are no longer possible in today’s world. However, good does still happen. I saw it happen as people marched to celebrate progress made and to advocate for even more. I heard it from choirs singing and from a sixth-grader reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reminder was embodied in the message of the man the day commemorates. Dr. King’s aim in life was not to have a day named after him. His aim was not solely to lead a movement that would achieve civil rights for African-Americans. His focus was larger than that and more profound. Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern was for the human race. Like Jesus, he was particularly concerned for those who were poor. He worked on behalf of people, black and white, who suffered in a social and economic system that kept the American dream just out of their reach.

The revival starts when I am mindful of those folks who still live somewhere beyond both the fruits of the American dream and the embrace of Jesus’ just and merciful kingdom. Not just in our country, but in our world there are those who scrape by with inadequate food, water and health care. Jesus had something to say about them. When we see them and give them food, water and treatment, we see Jesus and give him food, water and treatment.

One time a lawyer ask Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question still serves as an effective way to shape and form our lives in the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus told the lawyer a story about a man who fell among thieves. They beat him and left him to die. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan passed by where he was laying wounded. One of them stopped to help. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to this man?”

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer forces us to rethink our own answer. Jesus’ answer cuts across boundaries. Human labels and categories do not determine who our neighbor is, at least not as Jesus understands neighbor. Jesus’ approach is simpler. Is the person a person? Is the person created in the image of God? Then the person is a neighbor. Answering the “who is my neighbor?” question is easy for Jesus. The question that is more difficult to answer is implied in the conclusion of Jesus’ story. Will you be a neighbor? Will you be a neighbor to someone different from you?

Dr. King marched to make the neighborhood larger for us all and to show us that there is room for each of us in that neighborhood. I believe he learned about being a neighbor from reading the stories that Jesus told. The Kingdom of God comes near when we recognize the hungering, thirsting, needy Christ in the face of our neighbor. We step into the Kingdom, if for just a moment, when choose to be a neighbor to the person in front us who needs the love and mercy of God.

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#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.

Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.

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.

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.

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.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.