#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.

Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

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.

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.

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.

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. . .

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.