But Wait, There’s More!

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In their fright the women bowed down their faces to the ground but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24: 5-6a NIV)

From the chants of Hosanna last Sunday, to the shouts of denial on Thursday, to the hammering of nails on Friday, and the dead stillness of Saturday, it’s been a long week. A week full of emotions, unmet expectations, and shattered dreams.

But then light broke through the dark in the stillness of Sunday morning. On Sunday morning the stone was rolled away, and the seal to the tomb was broken. On Sunday morning the forces of empire ran screaming in the other direction, unable to comprehend what they saw. On Sunday morning the impossible happened:

One who was dead rose again!

The implications for us are huge in scope! The grave is not the end. Death does not have the final word. To meet death is to meet Christ, and he has defeated it once and for all!

But wait, there’s more! 

Jesus doesn’t just offer a promise for after you die. I mean, hey, eternal life, new life in Him sounds pretty good, but you don’t have to wait until you die! That new life can start now, this minute!

It’s not a promise that says that life will never be hard, or that you will never be sad, or that you will not feel pain. The promise is that Christ feels those things with you, alongside you, because he felt them too. He wants to be with you, he wants to share your pain. The lows will still feel low, but the the highs….the highs can become more than you can imagine.

All you have to do is say yes to Him.  Yes is a simple word but the implications are profound. Saying yes to someone requires trust, and believe me I know that trusting someone can get you burned. But Christ is not like that, and he’ll be there for you, welcoming you even at the end of all things.

Do you believe? I do. As Adam Hamilton says, “I don’t just believe it, I’m counting on it!”

“So come lose your life for a carpenter’s son, for a mad man who died for a dream, and you’ll have the faith his first followers had, and you’ll feel the weight of the beam.

So surrender the hunger to say you ‘must know,’ and have the courage to say ‘I believe!’ Then the power of paradox opens your eyes and blinds those who say they can see!” –Michael Card

Maundy Thursday: A Juxtaposition

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I had something I was originally going to put in this space. It wasn’t my best work, but it was pretty good, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe you’ll get to read it next year.

Instead, I’m going to show you two images from today.

0000juxt2One is something referred to as the “Mother of All Bombs.” It was dropped on some people who did bad things.  The Empire rejoices in it’s raw power to inflict pain, but it leads to nothing but fire and death.

“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52)

 

0000juxt1The other is of a gentle old man, who holds a position of great power, washing the feet of prisoners, some people who did bad things. The Empire scoffs and calls him a fool, but only his example has the power to transform hearts and lives.

“A new commandment I give to you. Love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:34)

Fire and death, or love and transformation? No person can serve two masters.

Speaking of The Master, He is anguished almost to the point of death, and walking into Gethsemane in the dark, alone.

Can you stay awake and keep watch?

Or will you fall asleep and be taken by surprise at the arrival of The Betrayer?

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is week indeed.

…..to be continued……

0000juxt3

 

 

The Old-Timer and “Kavod.”

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0000oldprospectorWhen a scoffer is punished, the simple become wiser;
when the wise are instructed, they increase in knowledge. (Proverbs 21:11 NRSV)

I had an interesting conversation at work tonight, but it almost never took place. I was sitting at my desk, which is just off the sales floor in the store where I work, buried in some paperwork, and trying to put out a fire that somebody else in one of our other stores had started. I’m sure I looked like I was busy. I’m sure of it. I had my head down, my glasses pushed up on my brow, that vein that sticks out in my forehead when I’m frustrated was about to pop out and do a dance on the desk in front of me. The empty can that formerly held my second energy drink of the day sat next to the empty package that had held the antacid that I had just taken.

An older gentleman approached my desk. In his hand was one of the latest “As Seen on TV” products, a tactical type flashlight that featured a super bright LED light that you could control the intensity of and also set it to flash SOS in Morse Code.  In addition to that, it’s made of hard metal and has a scalloped type rim around the light bulb that makes it a formidable weapon should you decide to knock somebody up-side the head with it. Honestly it’s quite the product. I’ve thought about getting one myself, not to brain somebody with, but because of the bright light and the SOS strobe. I figured it might be a handy thing to have in the glove box.

Anyway, the gentleman approached me, and despite the fact that I was OBVIOUSLY busy, (duh!), excused himself and asked me if I knew how bright the flashlight was. My first thought was…seriously? What do you want, the amount of lumens? How should I know? However, I’ve worked in customer service for 20 years, and I know enough not to betray my frustration. I put my pen in my ear and looked at the package. It did specify the number of lumens actually, but that’s Greek to me. Ugh, Why did he come to me? I have a desk job now, I’m IMPORTANT for Pete’s sake! (Apparently I’m kind of a self important jerkface too. Yes, Holy Spirit, I am sufficiently convicted….I think).

I figured the easiest thing to do would be to pass the guy off to one of my coworkers, then I could get back to the super huge important thing I was working on. I got on my walkie-talkie and called one of the part timers over. I asked him if he could take the gentleman, open the package, and put some batteries in the flashlight so he could see how bright it was. My coworker Corbin, who is a great kid, said sure and escorted the gentleman away. Finally I could get back to work!

Oh…..not so fast, my friend.

About five minutes later the gentleman starts striding toward my desk again, clutching the now open, and turned on, flashlight. He’s got a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon, and as I look past him I see that two of my coworkers, the aforementioned Corbin and Morgan, our cashier, are grinning ear to ear. They know what I’m in for, and I make a mental note to make them PAY at some point in the very near future. I will not be trifled with!

This old gentleman, who looked a lot like the picture in this post, didn’t care about that though. He had to show me how bright the flashlight was.

Sigh.

Resigned to my fate, I crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in my chair, fully expecting to tune this guy out. I’d smile, nod, and say “uh huh, uh huh,” a few times and hopefully he’d be good.

Yeah, it didn’t work out that way.

He told me about how it was about as bright as another one he had, but had a better casing on it. He told me he could see his cows up on the mountain 600 yards away with it!

“Uh huh.”

He told me about how it did the SOS code and gave me a short primer on Morse Code. I looked at my watch.

“Uh huh.” Yeah bro, I was in scouts, and I watch “Survivorman.”

He told me about how if you shined it in somebody’s eyes it would effectively blind them, and you could either hit them with it, or you could go for an incapacitating kick! He said a lot of folks tell you to aim for the genitals, but for his money, you go for the kneecap! Did I know that he could break my kneecap with a kick?

“Uh huh.”

As he went along he got more and more animated. At one point I was pretty sure that he had forgotten that he was actually talking to somebody.

My manager walked by and giggled, then continued on her merry way. I looked at my watch again. Then he asked me another question. He asked if I had ever gone out into the desert and collected arrowheads or “painted rocks.” This struck a chord with me. As it turns out, I have! My grandpa and grandma used to pass the winters in Quartzsite, Arizona. They’d pull their trailer down there every year, and my papa (as I knew him) would get together with a bunch of his old buddies and play in a band called the “Desert Varnish.” My papa was the lead singer and the guitar player. They set up a dance floor in the middle of the flippin’ desert and “snowbirds” would come from all over the area to dance at the “Stardusty Ballroom” while my papa and his band played all the big band standards and topped it off with a heavy dose of old time country music.

It’s by far the coolest thing anybody in my family has EVER done. The BBC even flew a team out to make a documentary about it!

And wouldn’t you know it, when we would go down to visit them, papa would take me out into the desert to look for artifacts and “painted rocks.” Yes this older gentleman now had my full attention. I never looked at my watch again.

I lost track of time as he spun more tales. He told me about how he had to escape a mountain lion on one occasion. He told me about a bunch of really cool arrowheads he had found, and how you could try to determine how old they might be. He told me what it was like to get up at 4:30 in the morning, make a pot of coffee on the fire, and sit in the middle of the desert and watch the sunrise. He said the sunset had NOTHING on the sunrise in the desert! He asked me if I’d ever seen anything so beautiful?

I realized I had not.

Finally he looked at his own watch and said, “Well, I’ve probably taken too much of your time already. Thank you for having that young man open that flashlight for me, and thanks for listening.” Then he sat the flashlight down on the desk in front of me and left.

I just sat and looked at the flashlight, then I picked it up and rolled it over in my hands a couple of times. I turned it on and off, then I tried the SOS feature. My eyes got heavy with water as I remembered my papa.

Morgan came over to my desk. She had heard the whole thing, and was wondering how I had managed to stay so patient.

“Everybody has a story,” I said, “and I love to hear them. Plus he’s probably just lonely and needed to talk.” She agreed, and went back to work. Then I thought, “Hey you know maybe God had him cross paths with me so I could be the one guy who would listen to him and give him some cheer! I did my good deed for the day!” Then I patted myself on the back for being so “in tune” with the Spirit.

Did I mention that sometimes I’m a self-important jerkface?

Somewhere up there in Heaven I could feel God do a massive face palm.

On the way home a short time later, it hit me. Ye Olde Holy Ghost smacked me up-side the head with his own holy version of the As Seen On TV tactical flashlight.

“I know you think you’re a Big Deal with your Lenten devotions, your Sunday School class teaching, and your local pastor program. Well listen here, Big Deal. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I didn’t send you for him, that maybe I sent him for YOU?”

Huh.

You see, I had come to the realization eventually that being there in that moment, being present in that conversation was HEAVY. I realized that it had meant something, that SOMETHING was happening. As Pastor Rob Bell talks about in his book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” the Old Testament Hebrews had a word for that. They called it kavod.

Kavod was originally a term for weight, like in a business transaction. Over time it gathered a new meaning. It meant a weighty moment, a heavy moment, a moment when you knew that SOMETHING was happening. In some places in the Psalms and Isaiah, it is also akin to the “Glory of God,” which is a weighty subject indeed. Can you stand next to the unbridled glory of YHWH? I know I sure can’t, but if I tried, it would be a very heavy moment!

So eventually in that moment tonight, I realized that kavod was happening. I realized that that conversation MEANT SOMETHING. But I was wrong about one thing. I presumptuously thought that it was just meaningful to him, that I, the Big Deal, was doing him a favor.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m so awesome that God just sends random people to my desk at work so I can cheer them up.

SNORT.

I don’t know whether it was kavod for him or not, but it definitely was for me. Not only did I get to recover some precious memories of my grandfather, but I got a look at just how presumptuous I can be and learned that I can benefit and become wiser from every interaction as well, as the verse from Proverbs above mentions. My eyes were opened to true life just a little more.

And it might not have happened had I not laid my self importance aside, and you know what?

I suddenly have the desire to get up at 4:30 AM, make a cup of coffee, and watch the sunrise.

And I think I just might get me one of those tactical flashlights.

Can’t I Just Enjoy Palm Sunday?

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000palmsundayThen they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (Mark 11: 7-9 NRSV)

If you’re like me and grew up in a church it’s very possible that Palm Sunday (also known as Passion Sunday) was a pretty neat time. I remember as a kid they’d hand us all the palm branches and we’d get to march around the sanctuary waving them around while everybody sang a hymn, usually “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,” and our parents looked at us with their “Oh how precious” faces and once in awhile took pictures. You know, with actual cameras. These were the days before cell phones after all. Everybody smiled, the music was boisterous, and the mood was joyful.

Well we still do that today at Community United Methodist, where I’m a member. Pastor Gary threw out a wrinkle today though. He let the adults join in the marching! Now in light of what I just said, you’d think I’d be all for jumping in there, right?

Wrong.

Now I am known as kind of a famous curmudgeon, and I suppose that could be PART of it, but there was something else going on in my mind. I really couldn’t get into it, because I was looking ahead to what happens later in the week.

I first ran into that feeling as a teenager.  When I was still in high school I took a job as a cantor for the big Roman Catholic Church here in Ogden. It was there, at St. Joseph’s, where I encountered Lent and Passion Sunday for the first time. I mean at first it was cool, there were still palm branches, and many of the folks folded them into little crosses. Huh. I never would have thought to do that. We even got to sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” with the church’s HUGE (bigly) pipe organ! But then when they read scripture they read the Passion narrative, and it was interactive. When they got to the part where Pilate asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus, the congregation (and me as cantor) responded with “Crucify him! Crucify him!” As a 17 year old kid who still wasn’t really well grounded in his faith (even though I thought was), I didn’t like hearing those words come out of my mouth. I remember going to my own church later in the day, where I was a worship leader, and sitting there before our service started and thinking to myself, “Can’t I just enjoy Palm Sunday?”

This morning I was thinking about that experience all those years ago. We ended our service with the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” and exited the sanctuary without a benediction, the idea was that Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and stretches through the whole week, as one act. As we left, the last hymn clearly put the focus on the events later in the week.

Can’t I just enjoy Palm Sunday?

I wonder if Jesus did. Jesus knew what was going to happen. As easy as it might have been for him to get caught up in the crowds and the adoration around him as he fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy, he still knew. He knew that he would not be the conquering military leader that the people expected, the one who would save them from the Romans. He knew that in five days his best friends would run away from him during his time of deepest anguish, and one of them would betray him. He knew that in just five days the same people shouting “Hosanna” would be shouting “CRUCIFY HIM” instead. He knew that in just five days, or 120 short hours, that he would die a horrible, humiliating, painful death.

No, I’m not sure he enjoyed Palm Sunday. If I could be so presumptuous as to put myself in his shoes for 25 seconds that day, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it, indeed I’m not sure I could have handled it. I guess for him maybe that being “Fully God” as well as “Fully Human” part might have helped.

Now I’m not saying that Palm Sunday is bad. In fact, it’s necessary. It was ordained, and maybe it’s just possible to steal a few minutes worth of joy from. However, it is just a beginning. It is the beginning of the final act of Jesus’ divine ministry here on earth. That act will feature very little joy in days ahead, and more than it’s fair share of sorrow, suffering and death.

You could be tempted to skip right to the end of the play, right to the end of story where joy just might await, where you see who gets the last word. I implore you though this week: don’t do that.

Be fully present in the moment. Be fully present in the drama. Be fully present in the sorrow. Don’t pass up the hours of lament to skip to the the joy. The lament, the sorrow, and the drama invigorate the joy!

The dark always comes before the dawn. But don’t fret the dark. Walk through it, move through it, and push through it, for it is in the deepest, most painful darkness that we encounter the most moving, beautiful, and dynamic Grace.

 

To be continued……….

Book Review: “Prophetic Lament,” by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah

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0000Lament“Prophetic Lament: A Call For Justice In Troubled Times,” by Soong-Chan Rah. Published 2015 by IVP Books. This review refers to the paperback edition.

I want to begin this post by acknowledging that it’s been FOREVER since I posted. There’s a good reason for that. Since the first of the year I’ve started a new position at work that pretty much doubled my hours. Great for the checkbook, great since I’m finally getting some benefits, not so great for creative time, reading time, and devotional time! I’m getting some things worked out though, so I hope to soon be posting again on at least a semi-regular basis.

I’ve been on a book buying binge with some of my new found cash on hand, and this book was one of the first ones I picked up. Doctor Soong-Chan Rah is a professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He has a heart for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the minorities, and the inner city. He has a lot to say about the way the church in the USA practices “urban ministry,” and a lot of it is difficult to hear, yet pretty much all of it rings true.

The backdrop for his insights into this subject and others is the Old Testament book of Lamentations, in fact this book itself is a fairly extensive look at Lamentations, which let’s face it, hardly anybody ever looks at. It’s pessimistic, brooding, sorrowful, dark, and in some places VERY graphic. I mentioned this book and the Book of Lamentations recently in a sermon I preached right before the start of Lent this year, when I was filling in for Pastor Gary. I suggested that a good “perspective gathering” practice for Lent would be to read through Lamentations. Somehow I doubt anyone took me up on that.

However, if you ever get a desire to check out one of the Bible’s least read, yet most moving books, then “Prophetic Lament” is a great guide to have along with you. Doctor Rah goes through the entire book of Lamentations and gives very insightful commentary on the structure of the book, the genre of lament, the usage of different words and terms from the original Hebrew, and the original context of the book: the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.

Some of you might be thinking “No way, man. The last thing I want to read is some stodgy academic work about a moldy old book in the Old Testament that my pastor never even mentions!”  Well, first it’s a pity if your pastor never mentions it. The story told in the book of Lamentations is essential to understanding not only the Jewish people of the Old Testament, but even the Jewish faith today, and of course we all *should* know by now that our Christianity is a development on that Jewish faith. Lamentations is still used today during the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av, which according to Rah recalls not only the first fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but the second fall of the city in 70 CE (that’s BC and AD for you non history types), and even the Holocaust during World War II. Lament in general and Lamentations in specific are part of the way Jewish people deal with the trauma of their history.

In that same vein, Rah suggests that lament would be a good way to help cope with the trauma of our current age. Look around at the last few years. So many young black men have been killed or left to die and rarely is anyone held accountable. Systemic racism is alive and well in the United States, and since the last election some of the people who claim that horrible ideology have stopped bothering to hide in the shadows. They’re now emboldened by a new nationalism that has been forged in the fires of the fears inherent to the post 9/11 world. Whether you believe that certain politicians purposefully tried to harness those sentiments or not, what is not up for debate is the fact that those voices are now louder and more strident than they have been probably in the last 50 years.

So what is our response as the Church, the Body of Christ? Here is where the rubber meets the road in this book. Rah believes, and I agree, that by and large American Christianity (particularly but not limited to the evangelical flavor) has discarded the practice of lament and closed it’s ears to the voices of people who are suffering from things like racism, poverty, systemic injustice, and an economic/justice system is seemingly rigged against them from day one. We’ve replaced that with the theology of celebration, where we sit back and marvel at how successful our most recent church plant is, about how many people flock to the local mega church and it’s many “campuses” every Sunday, about how many books the charismatic white male preacher with the perfect teeth can sell to the masses, about our many kids in our perfect little Sunday School programs….and on and on.

Then to add insult to injury we wealthy suburbanites decide we’ve been “called” to the inner city, to take our oh so wonderful and oh so white church models into the inner city and “save people.”

But who do we save, and what do people really need saving from? Rah points out that the density of churches in our urban areas is already quite large. The problem isn’t that we need to make more churches or take what we see as our “successful church model” into the city. The problem is that our white, suburban, Christian culture is so wrapped up in patting itself on the back that we’ve left out a huge chunk of Christ’s message: We need to stand for and stand WITH the suffering. What better function could the church serve than to give a voice and a venue to the voiceless and suffering? Lament allows us to do just that, but we have to be ready to get down in the dirt with the suffering, not just magnify their cries from an ivory tower high above.

I could have spent most of this post talking about Rah’s excellent commentary on Lamentations. It IS excellent and you should check it out. It’s not stodgy either, it’s very accessible, though certainly an interest in history, theology, and the Old Testament help. However, I really wanted to talk about what he spends most of the book talking about: the way we as the Church apply lament today to our culture. Rah talks a lot about how to incorporate lament and Lamentations into worship, and it’s certainly something I’m looking forward to looking into when I get a chance.

All in all this is a great, challenging, thought provoking, and much needed book. If you’re especially interested in a multi-cultural view on American Christianity then you really NEED to pick this one up.

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.