Thoughts on The Wall

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0000wallNo one can stop The Wall! Right? I’m going to depart from my usual subject here on the blog just this once. No, I’m not turning into a music reviewer and talking about Pink Floyd. I want to talk about Trump’s wall.

Oh, I can hear the groaning already! “Ugh, a political post! I’m out of here!” Just hear me out. This isn’t a political post at all in the sense of being for or against a candidate. It’s my view on the specific policy of building a wall on our southern border. I’m not here to thrash the President or sling mud, I just want to say why I think the Wall is a tremendous waste of money and resources.

But why should you care what I think? I don’t know if you should honestly, but it’s my blog, so there. Also, I’m not just a bleeding heart wannabe pastor guy. I also have a degree in Criminal Justice that features a fairly extensive discussion and education on security policy and anti-terror policy. This was a feature of any CJ program in the days after 9/11. I had classes and seminars from police officers, members of a Joint Terrorism Task Force, and even a retired British SAS soldier who had pulled duty in Belfast and other places in Northern Ireland.

So I’m still not saying you NEED to care what I think, but I’m not talking out of my rear end either.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is that opposing a big, physical barrier on the border does not mean you’re for “open borders” necessarily. I am certainly not. However, people misrepresent the views of people like me in order to make a relatively moderate view seem like an extreme leftist view. Trust me, I know and speak regularly with a lot of liberals, and not one of them is for “open borders.” On the flip side, wanting a more secure border doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, a fascist, or inhuman. We all want to be safe. The question is, how do we balance the desire to be safe with the call to be compassionate? Also, how do we use the resources at our disposal in a responsible manner to provide more dependable security?

Look, the southern border has issues. It always has, it probably always will. It’s long, it has a very diverse geography with several sections that are hard to fortify including rivers and mountain ranges. It is impossible to fortify every square mile of the southern border. That is a cold, hard, fact. It crosses private land that the government may or may not be able to seize. It crosses Native American land which the government can definitely NOT seize (lawfully anyway).

But there are reasons to try to secure the border more than it is in it’s present state. The former SAS soldier that I took seminars from was very honest when he said that with America’s airports and seaports being fortified in the wake of 9/11, the porous southern border becomes the easiest, most vulnerable way for someone with nefarious intentions to enter the country. Also, the flow of illegal narcotics across the border fuels America’s drug addictions and funnels huge amounts of money to cartels that then use that money to oppress people and expand their control. This in turn creates a desire to flee areas of cartel control, and about the only sure way to do that is to head for the United States. This results in a massive human trafficking problem where some of the world’s most vulnerable people will pay the very same cartels that they are trying to escape from every cent they have to be smuggled across the border. If they succeed in crossing they are often either left to fend for themselves or funneled into cartel run safe houses where they are often mistreated, exploited, or even sometimes sold into servitude (a particular problem for young women).

So having admitted that there IS a problem on the southern border, the next question we ask ourselves is: “Will a wall do anything to deter these actions and if so, will that offset the cost of building and maintaining it?”

For me, the answer is a resounding no. First off, I’ve already stated that it is impossible to fortify every square mile of the border, so there’s going to be large gaps in the wall, rendering it fairly useless to deter anyone who is at least enterprising enough to walk to the end of the damn thing. Plus, even if you COULD build it along the entire stretch of the border, the wall itself becomes vulnerable to breach if it’s not totally staffed every second of every day. Do you honestly think the United States can afford to spend 20 billion dollars on building a wall, let alone cover the cost of defending it? Plus, the wall will constantly be exposed to the eroding forces of nature, meaning that the cost to maintain it just went up as well.

People make comparisons to the Great Wall of China. Well, we’re not dealing with Mongolians on horseback (South Park reference alert). America’s drug habit ensures a steady stream of cash to cartels who often have technology and weapons at their disposal that are at least as good as, if not better than, the stuff that the good folks at the CBP have. If human history teaches us anything about ourselves it is that if someone builds a 12 foot wall, somebody else will build a 13 foot ladder. Of course who needs ladders when you can dig a tunnel, fly a helicopter, or just blow a whole in the damn thing with all that firepower you bought in America with the money made from selling drugs to Americans?

As long as humans have built walls other humans have figured out ways to get around them or through them. Make no mistake, both cartels and terror organizations are highly organized criminal enterprises with a lot of resources at hand. A wall might deter a few poor wannabe immigrants from trying to walk across the border to come pick fruit in a field and try to provide a better life for their family, but it’s not going to do much to stop someone who really wants to get in and hurt us. It’s almost impossible to do that in a free and open society. You know what building a wall does accomplish though? It tricks frightened and skittish American voters into thinking you’re actually doing something about the problem so they and the rest of us can continue to walk through our relatively carefree lives largely oblivious to and ignorant of the problems of the larger world around us.

These are problems that can’t be solved just by throwing money at them, doing buzzword filled TV interviews, complaining on social media, writing long off topic blog posts, or even building big ass walls. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I think doing things like hiring more border patrol folks, giving them better training and equipment, giving them better pay and benefits to make the job more attractive, and seeking more 21st century type ways to fortify the border are all better ways to spend our money than just building a big wall that must be constantly staffed and maintained. These types of solutions should be coupled with real policies designed to combat the problems inherent at the border. How do we support our allies in Mexico so that they can fight cartels and make their country safer? How do we seek to deal with America’s drug addiction and stem the flow of narcotics? The “War on Drugs” was a colossal failure, after all. How do we combat human trafficking and inhibit the cartels’ ability to operate this enterprise on both sides of the border? How do we keep America’s readily available arms and firepower out of the hands of cartels or terrorists?

Answering these questions and more provides us with the chance to make life better and more secure for people on both sides of our southern border. It’s going to take a lot of ingenuity, hard work, and maybe even some *gulp* COMPROMISE with folks who don’t agree with EVERYTHING you think.

That used to be something that America was good at. That used to be something that was viewed as a strength of our form of government. Now we’re too busy thinking that everyone who disagrees with us on ANYTHING is the devil incarnate.

I hope we snap out of it before we flush billions of dollars down the toilet and tear our country apart. Again, this is purely my opinion, and it may not be worth much. However, I needed to get it off my chest. Don’t look forward to more of these, this isn’t a political blog and it never will be. You’re certainly free to disagree if you wish, but if you’re one of these partisan trolls on either side that likes to just leave comments to stir up trouble, don’t bother. Your comment will not be approved. I cannot have my blog turned into a cesspool like Twitter or Facebook. I hesitated to even post this, but I felt like I needed to say it.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled “Path of Grace.”

God bless.

 

I’m At A Bit of A Loss Right Now.

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0000stutter“Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25: 45-46 KJV)

I’m in a bit of an uncomfortable place right now. If you’re a regular reader, then you might notice two things right away. One, I haven’t posted in a few weeks. Two, I used the King James Version for the scripture, which I don’t think I’ve ever done. I’ve used the NKJV a couple of times, but not Ye Olde King James.

Why? Well, I wanted to preserve the real wrath of God feel that the King James language brings out so well. Now, if you know me, you know that’s not like me at all. I’m a Methodist for heaven sake, we don’t usually do wrath and the like. Well, I’m one angry, discontent, utterly disappointed Methodist. I am so mad that I SKIPPED COFFEE AT CHURCH TODAY! WUT?!

But why? Well, that’s part of the reason behind why haven’t posted much lately. It’s partly because I have a new position at work with more hours (yay!) and partly because I’ve been so upset and disappointed that I haven’t really known what to say. That’s come to a head the last couple of days.

In his infinite “wisdom” our new president has decided to issue a “temporary” ban on refugees and visas from certain predominantly Muslim countries. In doing so he has slammed the door in the faces of some of the most vulnerable people in the world right now. These are people who need our help. It would be bad enough if it were just Trump and his cronies going off, but many Christians, including some that label themselves as leaders, have just released lukewarm statements about it, stayed silent about it, or some have even come out in support of it!  This includes some of what went on at my own church today. We look at ourselves as wonderful because we’re doing a Sunday School class that’s trying to start a dialogue on race issues. We pat ourselves on the back for that. We go serve food at the homeless shelter, and we pat ourselves on the back for that too.

Yet what was said about this clearly unbiblical, antichristian action by the president? A few mealy-mouthed statements about how “we have to love everybody” and “we are all God’s children,” and how we “need to come to a compromise.”

Compromise? COMPROMISE? People are DYING. Parents are being separated from their young children! Meanwhile we set around and try pick our words carefully so we don’t offend anybody?

That’s why the picture I used here caught my eye, “DID I STUTTER?”

UGH.

Hey look, I get it. When you have a big congregation you have to remember that people have differing opinions. I get it, there’s a certain balancing act that has to go on, a certain politic that sometimes needs to be played.

But this….Jesus himself seems pretty clear about this. Jesus commands us, his followers, to see Himself in the sick, the dying, the naked, the hungry, and the stranger. He also said if we love him, we will keep his commands (John 14:15). He doesn’t seem to have much time for lukewarm folks (ask the Church in Laodicea).

This is wrong. This is exactly the opposite of the teachings of Jesus. You know it. I know it. Folks like Franklin Graham know it. So what exactly is the elephant in the room here?

Some of us, many of us, don’t feel safe. People who feel that the president’s actions are warranted do not feel safe. I can understand that. Maybe some people don’t speak out because they feel that if they do they won’t be safe. I get that too. Fear is a powerful motivator. I’m not really trying to fault anyone for feeling that way. We live in a big, complicated, scary world and we’re constantly being bombarded with “news” that just confirms our worst fears. As I write this tonight there is word of a mosque in Quebec City that has been attacked by gunmen with multiple fatalities. Things like this are legitimate news, and they can instill fear. However, much of it is propaganda trying to convince you that you won’t be safe unless you vote a certain way, give money to a certain cause, or repost somebody’s status on Facebook.

Has fear gotten to us as Christians? I think it has. I’ve been afraid. For the better part of the last month I’ve thrown myself into my new job, buried my head in the sand, and just hoped that it would either all go away or maybe not be as bad as people have been thinking.

But it all hasn’t gone away, and yes, it’s that bad.

And if I’m afraid, how would a Muslim living here right now feel? I’d be scared to death. Heck, I’m a straight, white, Christian male! I’m top of the food chain with these Trump folks. But I’m afraid, it’s scary. Tonight I was discussing this with my mom. I mentioned that with all this serious, scary stuff going on that it seemed almost trivial to go read a book, watch a movie, or play a game (one of my hobbies). I asked her if things were that tense in the Civil Rights era and during the Vietnam era. She said yes, they were. Every week in the newspaper you looked to see who had died and who’s draft number had come up. I was born in the late 70s, I missed all that. I don’t even recall being afraid on 9/11. This is a new feeling to me.

So again, I try to take the example of Jesus. I believe Jesus felt fear. Since he was fully human as well as fully divine, he had to. I picture him in Gethsemane being paralyzed so much with fear and so anguished that he sweat drops of blood.

But he did what he had to do. He did it as an example to us. He did it to show us how much he loves us and how much he wants us to love each other.

Is there room in the theology of the Crucified One, broken for our sin and salvation, for the politics of fear? No, I do not believe there is. Christ’s commands are clear. The president is wrong.

Doing something about it is going to be a big scary task, and I admit that outside of contacting my representatives (which I have done) I’m not sure what to do. I do believe, however, that Jesus is calling both you and me to set aside our fear and do more. May he give us the grace and fortitude to do just that.

My prayers are with refugees everywhere, particularly the ones affected by the president’s order. Tonight I also mourn with those who were injured or lost loved ones in Quebec City.

When Your Sunday School Class Talks About Race

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000racefaceThere is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)

Today at my church we had our first adult Sunday School class since before Christmas. We turned from a rather feel good Advent study to a really tough, thorny topic: race and race relations. We’re exploring this topic through Rev Jim Wallis’s remarkable book “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.” The study is being led by a biracial couple that attends our church and has been active in the race discussion here in Northern Utah.

It started with a bang, as there was no shortage of people who wanted to talk. One of the most poignant moments came when Dennis, an African American man and one of the leaders of the study talked about the first time he encountered explicit racism. Dennis is originally from Houston, Texas. He described a job he had down there in high school, working with a trucking company. One day he and two coworkers, who were also black, decided to go get a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant while the truck was being loaded. The two coworkers wandered off, and Dennis waited until the loading was done, then he headed to the restaurant. Alone, he walked through the front door of the place and sat at the front counter.

A black man.
In Texas
In the early 60’s.

He quickly felt something was wrong as all the other patrons (who were white) were staring at him. Then one of the wait staff came up and told him “We don’t serve n*ggers here.” Dennis said flippantly, “that’s fine, I don’t eat n*ggers either!” That, needless to say, ratcheted up the tension. A couple of minutes later one of his coworkers came and grabbed him, and hauled him out back, where the black people ate. He asked Dennis if he was nuts and asked him if he didn’t understand the “way things are.” Shortly thereafter the cook came out and talked to him. The cook, who was also black, told him “Hey, I’ll fix you the best steak in my kitchen and only charge you for a hamburger as long as you EAT IT BACK HERE.”

Dennis joked that he kind of sold out his Rosa Parks moment right then and there, but he ate the best steaks in city all summer long! The joke cut the tension in the class a bit, but people were stunned. Really stunned.

You see, it’s fairly rare to encounter a lot of overt racism in Utah. There are very few African Americans here, and for the most part the religion of the area does pretty good job instilling in people at least a basic sense of human worth. Still, while that is tested more and more each year as the Latino population grows, it’s relatively rare to come across an overt racist who will throw out words like the N word and various slurs about Latinos, at least in public. So it was absolutely startling to hear about Dennis’ experience for many in the room.

Not for me though. I’ve had other experiences.

Back in the early 2000s one of my best friends, Jeff, and his wife Andrea were living in Memphis while Jeff went to Optometry School there. I went down to visit them one summer and they took me to see all the sights: Graceland, Beale Street, you name it. We went to BB King’s blues club, heard some legendary music and had a bit too much alcohol and BBQ, but we were young and had a designated driver.

The next day, a bit hungover, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. We bought our tickets and went in. After awhile we each started to have a distinct feeling of discomfort that had nothing to do with amount of alcohol consumed the night before. We went through the museum and finally up to the room where Dr. King died, which as been preserved. As we looked around we noticed that we were the only white faces in a crowded little room.

I can’t speak for Jeff and Andrea, but did I feel uncomfortable and maybe a bit guilty? You bet I did. But why should I? After all, the three of us were the epitome of liberal college students. We all had degrees and considered ourselves on the forefront a new multiethnic movement. Were were TOLERANT, damn it!

But we were like caged animals in a zoo.

Why? I struggled with that for years. In 2007 I moved to central Florida and found out why. One day I was walking our dog not far from our house and older black man came towards me on the same side of the street. I went to touch my ball cap to say hello to him and he crossed to other side of the street. I was stunned. (I’ve told that story on the blog before.)

I asked my father in law about it. I wanted to know if I had done something I shouldn’t have. I was perplexed and you bet I was thinking about that day at the Lorraine Motel. He explained to me that it was just the way older black people in the area had been brought up, to be distrustful of white people, and to cross to the other side of the street when they encountered a white person. Their experience in life was vastly different than my sheltered life in Utah.

I still didn’t quite get it though, but over time it came to me. I mean, it’s the 21st century, why should they still feel like that?

Then I started to pay attention to the way many white people behaved and spoke.

“I love black people, I think everybody should own one!”
“Why don’t they send more n*ggers into space? Because they already sent a monkey!”
“Look at those little n*gglets over there, playing in that filth.”
“I don’t know why we had the civil war (or War of Northern Aggression), them blacks were treated just fine and knew their place until the yankees showed up.”

You get the picture? If not, imagine a family walking into a restaurant for dinner but then leaving because there were too many black people in there.

So no, I was not stunned to hear Dennis’s story today.

But what does it say about our society that I can still hear those jokes in this country 50 years after Dennis had his experience? And guess what, I left Florida in 2008. I’d place good money on the thought that those jokes became even more prevalent in the last election cycle.

Many of us, myself included to an extent, are guilty of thinking that we largely moved on from race after the election of Barack Obama. Nothing is further from the truth. Much of the hate and anger that fueled the last election is a direct backlash to that thought. Many, MANY poor white Americans have always thought that it was ok to be poor, because at least they weren’t black. Better to be white trash than black. Now you have a black man as the President with a beautiful family and a successful career, and the hate machine fires up. Many on the right latched onto that idea and figured (correctly) that it could help them get back into power. However, now the genie is out of the bottle and who knows where we go from here.

I look forward to more discussion in this class, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say on the blog about it. However I hope everyone will pray that God gives us strength to overcome a lot of the nastiness going on right now. Don’t just do that though. Take a look at yourself. Look at your own experiences with race, and think about how you use those experiences to start making the world around YOU a better place.

 

Faith Tracks–“What Love Really Means,” by JJ Heller

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000loveendures“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 NLT)

Most of the posts I’ve made to this series talk about the old Christian Rock that I grew up with. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not too fond of most of what passes as Christian music today. The biggest problem I have with it is that 90 percent of it is totally praise based. There are times in your life, if you’re honest with yourself, when things aren’t going well and even the most faithful people don’t always feel like singing about how wonderful God and life are all the time. In short, I think that modern Christian music in this decade and the previous one leave little to no room for broken people. Think about it, if you’re really being crapped on in life, you might not want to go to church and sing a bunch of smiling happy songs about how wonderful it is because you follow Jesus.

A book I’m reading right now has a lot to say on this topic, so look for a post on that in the future, but for now, get this: Jesus knows you don’t always feel like praising him and singing happy songs. Jesus knows you hurt, he knows that you feel pain, because he experienced it himself.

But the other day I ran across this song by JJ Heller on a Spotify playlist. I’ve seen it posted with the title “What Love Really Means” and “Love Me.” When I heard it. I realized I had found something I had been looking for, a modern Christian song for broken people! I’m going to post the video here, followed by the lyrics, then I’ll talk about it a bit after that. Please give it a listen.

Here are the lyrics:

He sits in the corner where nobody sees
He’s the kid with the story
No one would believe
He prays every night
Dear God won’t you please
Could you send someone here
Who will love me?

Who will love me for me
Not for what I have done
Or what I will become
Who will love me for me
‘Cause nobody has shown me what love
What love really means

Her office is shrinking a little each day
She’s the woman whose husband has run away
She’ll go to the gym after working today
Maybe if she was thinner
Then he would’ve stayed
And she says

Who will love me for me
Not for what I have done
Or what I will become
Who will love me for me
‘Cause nobody has shown me what love
What love really means
What love really means

He’s waiting to die as he sits all alone
He’s a man in a cell who regrets what he’s done
He utters a cry from the depths of his soul
“Oh Lord, forgive me, I want to go home”
Then he heard a voice somewhere deep inside
And it said,
I know you’ve murdered and I know you’ve lied
And I have watched you suffer all of your life
And now that you’ll listen I’ll, I’ll tell you that I

I will love you for you
Not for what you have done
Or what you will become
I will love you for you
I will give you the love
The love that you never knew
Love you for you
Not for what you have done
Or what you will become
I will love you for you
I will give you the love
The love that you never knew

Pretty poignant isn’t it? At least it is for me. Think about the lyrics for a minute. We look at the first two verses of the song and think “Aww, sad!” Look at the third verse though. Somebody in prison, a murderer, a liar? Does God still love that person? The song says yes, He does, and I agree.

There is the real power of this song. No, really, despite EVERYTHING you’ve done, even the most heinous things, God still loves you. Do you believe that? Do you honestly believe that God still loves murderers and crooks the same way he loves you? I suspect many of us would say yes, we believe that in a theological/intellectual sense, but do you really BELIEVE it, deep down?

We often have an issue with that. You see, if God really loves them, then he expects us to love them too. Let’s be frank, most of us would never willingly put ourselves in a position to love those kind of people. We look at people who do things like prison ministries and we think “Wow, they’re a really great Christian, but surely God isn’t calling me to do something like that.”

That’s at the best level. At worst we indulge in thoughts like, “That person should get what they deserve.” I should know. I just spent a half hour being very cranky about the person who hit my car two days before Christmas and railed to my family about how he should get what he deserves.

Oops. Physician, heal thyself!

The truth is, not getting what you deserve is the essence of grace. If you really believe that nobody is beyond the grace and love of Jesus Christ, then the third verse of this song rings true. We are called to love people the same way God does.

But maybe you just want to be loved. Have you ever had someone who really loved you for you? Outside of my family I can maybe think of two people in my life who REALLY love me for me. It’s a powerful feeling.

And guess what, you know how God isn’t willing to give up on that person sitting in prison? He’s not willing to give up on you either! This sounds a lot like my last post, but the fact that Christ died for you is proof of that, proof of how much he loves you. Try to remember that, even in the darkest of times.

And hopefully God puts others in your life who will show you what loves really means as well.

Just don’t forget to reflect that love back to others when you receive it!

Christmas 2016: Broken Organs and Little Children

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000childcandleDear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. (1 John 4: 7-10 CEB)

Have you ever heard the story behind the beloved carol “Silent Night?” I hadn’t, until I prepared to teach our adult Sunday School lesson at Community United Methodist Church for the 4th week of Advent. We were doing a Christmas study by Pete Briscoe, and honestly, I had been a bit less than impressed, until I heard Pastor Briscoe talk about this song.

In the year 1818, Father Joseph Mohr was stationed in church in Austria. On Christmas Eve Father Mohr was informed by his organist, Franz Gruber, that the church organ was broken and would not be able to be used at Midnight Mass. How do you have Midnight Mass without an organ? Father Mohr asked the helpless Gruber to attempt to fix it and went out in the night air to clear his head by making some pastoral visits. During this time he went to see a couple from his parish that had just had a baby that evening. As fortune would have it, the father of the newborn was a carpenter, though I’m guessing the mother wasn’t a virgin!

Anyway, Father Mohr visited the couple and the new child, and as he was walking back to the church in the cold, the comparisons between the night when Christ was born and that very evening began to occupy his thoughts, and the first words to a new poem came to his mind. Upon arrival back at the church, he went in immediately penned the words and filled in the poem.

Here is the original German. I think we’ll all be familiar with the English version:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Gruber’s organ was still beyond repair, so Father Mohr asked him to write up a tune real quick to go with the poem that he wrote. Gruber protested that he wasn’t much of a guitarist, but he knew three chords and used those.

That night, Mohr and Gruber performed for the first time one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time: Silent Night. Did the priest and the organist realize that they had written a hit that would last 200 years plus? I doubt it. To this day, the Bing Crosby recording of Silent Night is still the number three best selling single of ALL TIME.

And we would have never heard of it if it weren’t for a broken organ.

Isn’t it funny how God works?

God took that broken organ and made something beautiful out of it through the poetic talents of Father Mohr and the musical talent of Franz Gruber. These days “Silent Night” is a mainstay of Christmas Eve services in Protestant churches and Midnight Mass in many Catholic churches. It’s one of the first songs I remember singing, seated on the floor in the gym of my elementary school back in the early 80s as all the kids gathered in on the morning of the last day of school before Christmas break to sing carols while a teacher played the piano.

Have you ever felt like a broken organ? Have you ever felt so down and out that you were beyond repair, and that not even God himself could make something beautiful out of you? I know I’ve been there. I was there for many years.

But guess what? I have “good news” for you!

Nothing is impossible with God! Gabriel said that exact thing when Mary questioned how she could become pregnant without ever being with a man (Luke 1:27). The LORD has worked plenty of miracles over the years. He made old, barren Elizabeth pregnant. He made a young teenager named Mary pregnant without any sexual intercourse or contact. He came among us himself in a frail, fragile, finite human body in the man of Ye’shua or in Greek “Jesus.” Jesus was then raised from the dead three days after being executed on a cross.

And you think he can’t do anything with you? Oh yes he can, and if you let him, he will. His grace and love are more than sufficient for anything you can ever do.

Let’s get this straight right here, right now: There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less, period. There is no crime you can commit, no wrong so horrible that will put you outside of his grace. Also, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is no work you can perform, no prayer that you pray, no mission that you can serve, no church, temple, or cathedral that you can attend to move you up on God’s pecking order.

He loves you to the max already, and he’s not going to stop, ever. As Pastor Gary is fond of saying, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” His love is perfect, even though you are not, even though I am far from it. How do we know that? Well as the verses from 1 John say above, he sent his only Son to dwell among us that we might be saved through him. That is what we celebrate this Christmas. I don’t care how many other people tell you it’s about something else, it might be for them, but for me it’s about the Christ and his love and grace.

That’s hard to grasp though isn’t it? Even for me, someone who ponders this on a regular basis, it can be hard to put a fine point on. However last night, I did.

Many United Methodist churches have a tradition for Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Maybe your church does something similar. With all the lights off in the church except for the Christ candle in the middle of the Advent Wreath, the Pastor will light his or her candle. They in turn light the candles of a few ushers who move down the aisles, lighting the candles of the person on the end of each row.  That person in turn lights the candle of the person next to them saying “May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you.” The person receiving the light then says, “And also with you,” then they light the candle of the next person and so on until everyone in the church is holding a lit candle.

The darkness, so prominent just minutes earlier, is banished in the light that came from the Christ candle. There are fewer, more beautiful sights in the world, especially like last night when the snow was visible through the front window of the church as it gently settled on the ground.

And as we light the candles, we sing “Silent Night,” that old carol penned nearly 200 years ago, that no one would have ever known without a broken organ. It brings me to tears every year. It is the moment when Christmas finally comes for me.

Something special happened last night though. There was a family with a young girl sitting a couple of pews in front of us. As I held my light and sang words like “With the dawn or redeeming grace,” I noticed the child. Her face was aglow from the candlelight, and her mouth moved to the words that even her young mind knew. Her eyes were wide with delight and wonder at the flame, the light, the music, the season, and the great mystery of the Incarnation.

I cried a bit more because I realized something:

Maybe one of the best ways to grasp the grace and love of Jesus Christ is through the innocent, bewildered eyes of a child.

Think on it.

Merry Christmas and in the words of another small child from a Christmas tale “And may God bless us, everyone!”

Brandon Carter,
25 December, 2016
Ogden, Utah.

7 O’Clock News/Silent Night

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000aleppo(Photo Newsweek)

This year, 2016, has been a tough one for a lot of folks. The headlines have been, well, often highly unpleasant to put it mildly. We’ve had war, terrorism, an isolationist referendum in the UK and a controversial election in the United States both fueled by ultra-nationalist (often racist) sentiment, a president-elect who thinks nothing of tweeting haphazardly about nuclear weapons, millions of people afraid of losing health coverage or jobs, and of course: dead famous people.

It’s somewhat disturbing that as I look at my social media feeds, the only one of those things that people really seem to be all that upset about is the dead famous people. One of the news sites that I often read had a headline the other day that trumpeted “It’s not just you, more celebrities really have died in 2016.”

Really?

Now I don’t wish to downplay the death of any human being, but I kind of think that refugees taking their lives into their own hands to escape war torn areas probably don’t really care all that much that Prince died. No, really, they don’t. I know that’s hard for us to fathom as we sit in our climate controlled homes, browsing the latest smartphone, with an endless supply of David Bowie music streaming from Spotify, but it’s true. I believe that when history finally gets a look back at 2016 it will be memorable, but the dead famous people will barely be a footnote. I pray that the rest of us learn to see past that into the lives of millions of people who struggle and often die everyday without a single peep from a newscast or a single tweet popping up about them.

Fifty years ago, in 1966, Simon and Garfunkel recorded a song called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.” As the folk duo sang the sweet melody of “Silent Night” in the background, a newscaster read recent headlines. Among them were:

The fight over housing discrimination in the Civil Rights Act
The death of comedian Lenny Bruce from a drug overdose
Police and National Guard troops being called to a protest by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A serial killer in Chicago
The House “Un-american Activities Committee” investigating anti Vietnam protests
Richard Nixon promising at least 5 more years of the Vietnam war.

If this song were to be redone with today’s headlines, what headlines might be in there?

The slaughter of innocent people, including children, in Aleppo?
Future congressional hearings into Russia’s influence into the election?
Refugees drowning while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea?
The new president promising to build more nuclear bombs?
A new wave of white supremacists and their destruction of lives and property?
Young black men being killed by police officers and the unrest that follows?

Yeah, any of those and more.

I don’t want to be a downer here before Christmas, but many of us will spend time seriously reflecting on 2016 over the next week or so, and I think we need to remember more than just the famous folk who have passed. I believe that it’s important, as we look back on 2016, to reflect and then decide what kind of world we want to have in 2017 and then work to make it so. Lord willing, things will be better for a lot of people, but we’ll see.

Here’s the original song by Simon and Garfunkel. Take a listen. It’s haunting.

In Sync

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000snowtraffic“When you live in the stream of God’s will, you are moving in sync with the universe. You’re moving in tandem with the divine DNA God has placed within you. You find yourself in harmony with God’s creative design, and life becomes balanced. Your soul beats in rhythm with God’s heart, and you find contentment.” –Ed Robb, “The Wonder of Christmas.”

I want to share a story about something that happened in my life yesterday. The purpose of sharing it is not to toot my own horn or talk about how awesome I am, but to talk about a moment when I was fully connected with God, and what a powerful experience that was. Sometimes people ask me how I know God is real. They wonder how I can believe in a God that was born of a virgin and raised from the dead. These things don’t happen in the natural order of course. Now, if you’re one of those folks who can’t abide the thought that something might happen out of the natural order, then this isn’t going to convince you. However, this experience not only shows me that God is real, but that he desires that we abide with him and have a relationship with him.

Last night I was driving home from work after a long day of processing incoming freight in our backroom. I was tired. I was hungry. I really wanted to just get home and cuddle up with a book or take a nap. It was about 4:25 PM and the traffic was starting to pick up with folks heading home from work or heading out for an evening of Christmas shopping. I was sitting at a red light, stopped at the busiest intersection in the little town of Roy, Utah. The sun was starting to fade, and the temps were starting to drop.

As I waited at the light my gaze shifted outside of my passenger side window. I saw a homeless man sitting in a wheelchair with a sign that said “Veteran, Need Help.” Now, that’s not an odd occurrence at this intersection. We have a military base here, and there are lots of ex-military and vets around. Many don’t get all the help they need.

At first I didn’t pay much attention. Like I said, it’s common to see people like that there. But then something else happened as I got ready to drive away. A little nudge in my soul said, “Don’t ignore that man.” Maybe you’ve experienced these little nudges before. Often they are easy to ignore, and I tried. The next thing that happened was not a gentle nudge. It was like the voice of someone in the car next to me saying, “No, you don’t get to ignore that man.”

At this point I knew that it Christ was knocking and it was game on. The “voice” said, “Look, you don’t get to go be a pastor, you don’t get to say you believe all these wonderful, high and mighty things unless you help him.” And I thought about it. And I argued in my head. “Seriously, Lord, you expect me to give something to every homeless person I see? Come on now.”

“No, I am asking you to help that man. I’m asking you to do it right here, and right now. I’m asking you to put your money where your mouth is.”

I realized that the “voice” had a point. Recently I was approved to become a candidate in the UMC Local Pastor program. If I wasn’t willing to take 5 minutes and help this guy when it was QUITE CLEAR that God was asking me to do so, then what good am I? If I can’t take time to at least do this, am I nothing but an empty vessel, supposedly filled with wine, or perhaps the water of life, but actually being just dry and dusty inside?

So, now convicted and pondering, I went through the intersection and stopped at a bank to get some money. However, as I pulled up I realized that it wasn’t my bank, and that I would probably get hit with a hefty ATM fee if I used it. So I thought, ugh, forget this, I’m going home, and I pulled back into the roadway and headed home.

Thankfully the story doesn’t end there.

The “voice” was back, and it said just one word: “Seriously?”

At this point I tried to bargain with the Spirit. “Look Lord, if I give him money he’s just going to buy beer with it. I’ll tell you what, instead of this I’ll by some wash cloths for Family Promise and donate them to that homeless ministry.”

The voice again: “I would love for you to do that for Family Promise, but first go help that man. It isn’t for you to worry about it what he does with money. Is is for you to offer him your help, and your time.”

So I pulled into the parking lot at the grocery store and purchased a couple of things I needed. I got some cash back. Some of it I deposited in the Salvation Army Red Kettle, and the rest I put in my wallet. I drove back a half mile or so, hoping he would still be there, wondering if I had failed.

He was still there.

I parked, got out of my car and approached him. He didn’t see me coming and looked a bit startled when I spoke to him. I said “Here, man. I’ve got something for you.” He looked at me, and I put the bill into his outstretched hand. Then I squatted a bit (he was in a wheelchair as I said), I put my hand on his shoulder and wrapped my arm around him a bit. It was like the spirit was coursing through me, I felt he needed that human contact, if just for a second. He looked at me with big, thankful eyes and said. “Thank you so much. God bless you, sir. Have a Merry Christmas!” I patted him on the back and said “I hope you can as well.” He smiled again and I walked back to my car.

Once I got in and shut the door I cried. I don’t know how much that experience moved or helped that man, but it had been earth moving for me. I cried because I realized just how close I was to driving away and ignoring him.

The whole thing was just powerful. Now I want to be careful here a bit. I’m not under any delusion that I solved all of that man’s problems. I recognize that his physical needs are still far greater than my spiritual needs. I realize that God didn’t make that man homeless just so I, some privileged, comfy, modern, suburban guy could get warm fuzzies at Christmas. I recognize that there is still much to do and that this one experience does not excuse me from looking for further opportunities to help.

But I was moved. I tried to get it out of it. Lord knows I tried. I pulled out every excuse, including the tired old stereotype of “homeless people just buy beer and drugs.” I realized that God was calling me to do that, right then. I realized that God was calling me to minister to that man, and how could I call myself a Minister and not do that?

And when I did it. I felt dialed in. I felt in sync with the Holy Spirit. I felt connected to God. I felt his power, his compassion, and his love flowing into that situation, for me and for the man I stopped to help. Then I read the quote that I cited above this morning and it hit me all over again.

When we earnestly seek Christ. When we try to follow him and do his will, we can get “dialed in.” We get connected, plugged into the ultimate source of all life. It’s wondrous. I want to do it again. I want to experience it again, and again, and again. I want to have a relationship with God and a living, breathing, vital faith that just CAN’T HELP but do His will, knowing that He can use that to his glory and his purpose. Alleluia, A-men.

What might God be calling you to do right this second? What happens when that nudge turns into a a not so still, not so small voice?  What is God saying to you today? He is real, He loves you, He longs for you to draw close to him. This is all the proof I need.

But there was something else. As I drove away after I gathered myself the Voice had one more thing to say to me:

“Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

That is all the reward, all the fulfillment that I could ever ask for.

How Would You Do It?

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000pop“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9: 6-7 NIV)

Something has been on my mind this Advent season. It’s a question, really, and Pastor Gary’s sermon this morning brought it back to my mind again. The question is this: If you were God, and you were going to come among your people to save them from themselves, how would you do it?

Now don’t get carried away here. You’re NOT God, I’m NOT God, even though we act like it sometimes, but think about it. What kind of plan would you hatch to be present with your creation? Keep in mind, you’re God, you can do it however you want to. After all, that is the mystery of Christmas, right? God is born among his people as one of us. That’s the Incarnation in a nutshell, Eternity steps into Time as Michael Card puts it.

Maybe you’d come in a great vision like that of Ezekiel, Isaiah, or the one described in Revelation. Riding atop a chariot, crowned with fire! Yeah, that would be pretty sweet, right? Maybe that ancient imagery isn’t your thing. Maybe you’d show up on a great tank with hosts of angel warriors at your back. Yeah, you’d know how to make an entrance, that’s for sure!

Maybe you’d prefer to be more subtle. I mean, you don’t want to put anybody off, so maybe you just appear out of nowhere as a wise sage who could convince people to cut all the crap that goes on in the world, and if you couldn’t reason with them, then maybe you get all divine, drop a couple of miracles, and reveal yourself that way. I kind of think that’s how I might do it.

Now think on this, would you do it like God actually did it?

If you were going to be born into the world, who would be your mother? Would you pick a royal woman with a lot of power? How about a young intellectual that’s moving up in the world? How about an unmarried, teenage, Jewish peasant girl that has no power or station in life apart from her father or her soon to be husband?

That’s the way it happened.

Where would you pick to be born? Maybe in the best hospital around? Maybe in a royal palace? In this day and age you might choose to be born at home with a midwife instead of going to a hospital. I bet you wouldn’t pick a cave somewhere, with only your mom, dad, and a bunch of farm animals to witness it. I bet you wouldn’t pick an animal feeder for your first bed.

That’s the way it happened.

Who would you pick to be the first people to get the news of you, God, being born into the world? Maybe you’d want your angels to show up at the White House and tell whoever the President is how it’s going to be from now on. Maybe you’d want to tell the religious leaders of the world so that they can come, see you, and get the word out ASAP. Would you choose a bunch of dirty shepherds that probably smell like sheep and whom probably nobody would believe anyway? Doubt it.

Yet that’s the way it happened.

We have so much on our minds during the Advent/Christmas season. I wonder though, do we really take the time to consider the absurdity of it all, the scandal? After all, Mary could have been stoned to death for turning up pregnant before she was married. Joseph had every right under law and custom to break it off. Can you imagine the scorn with which people looked at them, particularly Mary? Is it any wonder that she went off to visit Elizabeth after she received the news from Gabriel?

Can you imagine the indignity of it all? Mary has been told that she is carrying the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and then she has to ride or walk out to Bethlehem. Hey, I’m not a woman, but I can’t imagine that walking that far or riding a donkey while pregnant would be very comfortable. Maybe you ladies can set me straight there, but I suspect I’m right. Then when you show up in boring, little old Bethlehem you can’t even get a room, you have to go have your baby in a cave or a barn? Not cool.

And then, just when you finally get down to get some sleep and rest after having your baby, Joseph shows up and tells you that you have, uh, some visitors. Not now, really? Who is it? Well, uh….I’ll just let them in and you can see for yourself. They say some angels showed up and told them about it.

And in come a bunch of smelly shepherds fresh from the pastures. Maybe a sheep or two that followed them into town.

Wow. Would any of us choose for it to happen that way? Yet Scripture said that Mary treasured all of these things and pondered them in her heart.

God is a mystery. His ways surely are not our ways. If you’re like me, you probably often think, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” Yet somehow, when God acts, when God comes among his people, it’s rarely the way we expect it to happen.

And yet, it is beautiful. It is beautiful in it’s simplicity, and in it’s humility. God comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby, not as a conquering king. He saves us not by purging the world of his enemies and swinging a great sword, but by allowing himself to be tortured and executed by being nailed to a tree, a death that is cursed in the Jewish religious world and the most shameful death imaginable to the Romans, who let’s face it, could imagine quite a lot.

Even that is beautiful. It is sacrifice for the good of others. I don’t pretend to know how the atonement works, there are as many theories as there are days in the week at least, but somehow, somehow in those last agonizing minutes the very personage of God takes into himself all of the violence, hate, cruelty, selfishness, and greed of our world and turns it into something else entirely: grace and Love.

Is there anything more beautiful? Is there anything that’s needed more in our world right this very minute?

I think not.

And maybe that’s now how you’d choose to do it.

But that’s how it happened, with a baby being born to a teenage girl, far from home, in a dark cave fit only for beasts.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Thanksgiving 2016

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000thanksgiving16I’m not sure where the year 2016 has gone. It’s seriously awe-inspiring to me. I remember growing up as a kid in the 80s, you know in the “Back to the Future” era, and thinking about how awesome the year 2000 was going to be and how far away it seemed at the time. Now….wow, we’re 16 years after that and some of the people I work with were barely born before that!

Yeah, I feel kind of old I guess, but as I look back on my life so far, I also feel tremendously blessed and thankful. Not only have I always had a roof over my head and food on the table, but I’ve been pretty healthy and for the most part able to go do anything I wanted at anytime. Those are all good things to remember at Thanksgiving for sure.

It’s more than that though. I’ve been blessed with wonderful family and friends. These folks have supported me every step of the way even when I’ve been a real pain in the butt to be around. (There have been plenty of those times by the way.)

So this morning I’m reflecting on my family’s Thanksgiving traditions over the years. There’s been a lot of food (of course), a lot of wine, and a lot of fun. My family is a transplant to Utah from Ohio. My mom’s parents moved here to work at Defense Depot Ogden after World War II, along with another family from Ohio that we’ve remained good friends with.

So we’ve always been a pretty close knit group. Over the years, particularly after my grandparents died, we’ve often had Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house and Christmas at my parent’s place. That’s changed over the years. My cousins had families and moved to the Salt Lake area, and my sister and her family moved to Washington DC. A few years ago my uncle Greg was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he’s pretty much home bound at this point. So we try to everything we can at my aunt’s house so he can be a part of it.

For as long as I remember, my mom has gotten up on Thanksgiving morning and made pies. Usually one pumpkin and one pecan. As a matter of fact she’s doing the same thing right now, just a few feet away from me as I sit and work on this blog at their kitchen table. I can already smell the pumpkin. Christmas music is playing. In a little bit I’ll probably watch some football and chill before it’s time to go to my aunt’s.

Once we get there, my mom and my aunt will go to work preparing cheesy cauliflower. I don’t know how to describe it really, it’s like cauliflower cooked in bits of cheese crackers, and to this day it’s pretty much the only way I’ll eat the stuff. It’s probably cutting days off of my life span as well. There will be wine and vegetables and dip and time to catch up with my cousins before we eat.

Oh yes, we eat. Full turkey and all the fixings. You name it, we usually have it. We generally serve it buffet style since there’s not room at the table. I’m actually not much of a turkey person. I’ll have the obligatory amount of white meat smothered in gravy, but I’ll pile the sides high, particularly stuffing and the cheesy cauliflower. I mean, it’s not thanksgiving unless you have to undo a button on your pants after dinner, right? Better yet, wear the stretchy pants!

After dinner, we generally slither like slugs into the TV room for the big family tradition. Watching Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase. I don’t know how many times we’ve watched it over the years. Most of us have it memorized. The funny thing is that we still laugh like it’s the first time we’ve seen it. It’s kind of hard for me to envision Christmastime starting without watching it.

Generally I have to work early Friday morning, so I have to leave early, but not this year. I actually don’t have to work until tomorrow night, so I don’t have to run home and go right to bed. It should be fun.

So that’s a little look into what my family does for the holiday. Whatever you and yours are up to today, I pray that it will be fun, safe, and blessed. Try not to argue about politics too much!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Prayer For the Night Shift.

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000nightshiftMost of my working life I’ve worked swing shift or night shift. I’ll tell you what, it can mess with you. It sure has messed with me after 20+ years of going to work when everybody else is going home or going to bed. Your natural cycles get tossed this way and that, you eat at really weird times or skip meals altogether, and at times it’s almost impossible to have a social or spiritual life.

I mean, can I pray the morning office at 11:30 AM? Is that cool?

Anyway, recently I got the book “Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals” by Shane Claiborne and others. I really appreciate the work that they put into it, and I was inspired to write a prayer for folks like me, who often work those hours when everyone else is at home relaxing, even in bed. Remember, for you to get up and get your food on the way to work at 7 AM, somebody had to be there before you to prep it. Often times these folks go unnoticed and unappreciated by the rest of us as we go throughout our day. Many of them will be doing even more going into the Holiday and Christmas season. So I’d be tickled pink if you took a moment to remember us in your prayers. I’ve got an opening and a closing, and a verse each for 4 types of jobs that tend to work nights: Medical personnel, Emergency Responders, retail service workers, and food service workers.

“Bless Them With Rest”

Dear God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Remember those who labor and toil while I eat and rest.
Bless those go unseen during night hours.
Strengthen those who ply their trade after the setting of the sun.

LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER.

Oh Great Physician,
We ask that you abide with those who care for the sick during evening hours.
Sharpen their senses and minds to meet the challenges of their charges
And bless them with rest when their watch has ended.

LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER

Oh Prince of Peace,
We ask that you give peace to those who keep calm after twilight.
Bless them with Solomon’s wisdom and David’s heart as they serve
And bless them with rest when their watch has ended.

LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER

Oh Gentle Comforter,
We ask that you watch over those who replenish our stores and markets.
Grant them the strength and energy to complete their tasks quickly and safely
And bless them with rest when their watch has ended.

LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER

Oh Breaker of Bread,
We ask that you enrich those who we depend upon for our food.
Bestow upon them rich blessings for doing holy work, feeding your children
And bless them with rest when their watch has ended.

LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER

Oh glorious Son of God,
You felt loneliness when your disciples slept in the garden
and left you alone to keep watch the night before your death on the cross.
Energize and comfort those who also keep the lonely nights
And bless them with rest when their watch has ended.

OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN
HALLOWED BE THY NAME
THY KINGDOM COME
THY WILL BE DONE
ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD
AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES 
AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US
AND LEAD US, NOT INTO TEMPTATION
BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL
FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM
THE POWER
AND THE GLORY FOREVER.

MAY THE LORD JESUS CHRIST GRANT US A PEACEFUL NIGHT AND A PERFECT END.

A-MEN.