Monday, December 23, 2013

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Today, we lost a saint. Gena's best friend from childhood became one of my dearest friends. I owed Elizabeth a lot - after all, if she had not accepted me, I doubt seriously Gena would have said "yes." If she had not continued to welcome me as a part of her life, well, let's just say I am so glad she did, for my marriage has been happier as a result. If she had not been the person who fought cancer for the last three years with grace, dignity, spirit, and an unflagging faith that ended each email with "trusting Him now more than ever," her struggle would have been much more difficult for Gena and me and everyone else around us.

And now her struggle is over. She has entered that place and time and presence that are promised to all of us who know Christ. She is at peace. And it is time, oh how it is time, for her to be at peace.

Here it is, the day before Christmas Eve, and Elizabeth gets to enjoy a silent, holy night. She gets to sleep, for the first time in months, in heavenly peace.

It reminds me of that carol that so many of us will all sing tomorrow night. For the chance to sleep in heavenly peace is needed by us all.

Oh tiny baby, you who have not been given even a bed on which to lie, sleep in heavenly peace. This one night, after the shepherds have left and before the wise men arrive, sleep peacefully. Tonight, now that the barnyard animals have finally settled down, sleep. For there will not be many peaceful nights for you. Already you know the torment, the turmoil, the torture that lies ahead. You have watched us since creation, so you know that we are building our towers and fighting our wars; you know that we will not let you walk your road very long before somebody gets out the whip and somebody else builds a cross. So tonight, dear child, while you can, sleep in heavenly peace.

Oh quaking shepherds, you who work on the ragged hills and keep watch through the cold nights, sleep in heavenly peace. You have heard what none of us has – the very choir of heaven singing “Alleluia” with harmonies and chords that we cannot even imagine. Tonight, you who have seen glory streaming from the face of a baby can dream about what you have experienced, this gift presented to you. This night, you can sleep in the peace reserved only for those who know they have seen the face of God. That is heavenly peace.

Oh melodious angels, you who sang the anthem you have been preparing since that dark day in Eden, sleep in heavenly peace. We don’t know you well enough to know if you sleep like the rest of us creatures do, but we imagine that this appearance to our human brethren for a concert like none other has left you pleasantly spent. You have done well. Indeed you have inspired us to understand the true greatness of this event. You have earned a rest. Sleep.

Oh sinful world, you who have waited for Messiah and have struggled with your own vices, sleep in heavenly peace. For you who are wearied by temptation and failure, this night of the wondrous star has witnessed new light shed into your darkness, and you can sleep now. Tonight, you no longer have to fear not waking up, for the world has changed. Christ the Savior is born. So tonight, dear children, for the first time, you can sleep in heavenly peace.

And tonight, and every night, Elizabeth knows heavenly peace. Thank God.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Missing the Messiah

"We were sad to miss the Messiah this year."

This line from my pastor's weekly letter to the congregation caught my eye. I know what he meant, of course. Our church annually holds a community service called the "Messiah Sing." Our chancel choir, accompanied by members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, performs Handel's "Messiah" and invites all those in attendance to sing with us on the choruses. It is a popular and expected event, and the sanctuary is routinely filled to overflowing for it. This year, because of an unusual ice storm, the event was canceled. We thus missed "Messiah."

But the pastor's note struck a different chord with me. Too often, Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and we miss the Messiah.

We do not allow ourselves to miss the Christmas experience. We sing the songs, take the school vacations, hang the lights, attend the parties, and give the gifts. We make sure to include "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Elf" and "The Christmas Story" as a part of our December routines. We would not dare fail to put up a tree.

And we dutifully bemoan the "commercialization of Christmas" even as we buy another lighted wreath.

The brilliant insight of Dr. Seuss is that taking all of these trappings away - the Grinch even steals the roast beast - cannot keep Christmas from coming. Would that we all had the understanding of Dr. Seuss.

John the Baptist himself was not sure the Jesus he found was the Jesus he had been expecting. John had preached about a Messiah bearing a winnowing fork. The healing, resurrecting, loving Jesus was not quite the same picture. Of course, more was different than just Jesus, for John the Baptist asked his doubting question - "Are you really the one?" - from a prison cell. Life was not turning out like John had expected, and the world was not what John expected, and Jesus was not what John expected.

The same is true for us. Life is not what we expect. Dangerous ice storms prevent us from taking our routine drives and interrupt our schedules. We do not turn out to be the persons we thought we would be. Somebody steals our roast beast.

And maybe Jesus is not what we expected. We wanted a king to come and conquer everything that was bothering us. We were ready for the ruler, the long-expected deliverer. We were prepared for the one who would smile at us and thank us for our excellent work and take us to our special slice of heaven. Yet life has not turned out that way. Our years of service and good deeds have seemingly gone unnoticed. Jesus has come without doing one thing about our sore backs or our irritating bosses. In fact, Jesus seems to have bypassed us altogether.

If we are not careful, we will be sad to miss the Messiah this year.

Jesus of course does not leave John the Baptist in his doubt. He reminds John of the the great prophecies of Isaiah, of the one who would come bringing sight to the blind and preaching good news to the poor. Jesus will not let us miss Him either if we will simply look. He is the one the angels proclaimed, the one who has come once again to live in the very dirtiest stables of our own lives. He is not deterred by ice storms, or aches and pains, or our own stubborn insistence on making Christmas about lights and movies and chocolate.

Advent is upon us. Christ is coming. Do not miss the Messiah.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Morning Has Broken - A Thought for Thanksgiving

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day.

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

How interesting that Eleanor Farjeon's eighty-four year old hymn text has found its way into popular music, recorded famously by Cat Stevens (after he was Steven Demetre Georgiou and before he was Yusuf Islam), Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Aaron Neville, Roger Whitaker, and Pam Tillis among others. These words of gratitude for new beginnings speak to the congregations on Sunday mornings and to the concert goers and those beside their radios. We all, churchgoers or not, find ourselves in shades of night, waiting and longing for the morning. And morning always arrives.

The lessons of life come almost too routinely. Spring always follows winter like resurrection follows burial. The retreat of the caterpillar into a cocoon is merely the preparation for the birth of the beautiful butterfly. Consider the lilies of the field, which neither labor nor spin, yet Solomon in all his splendor was not dressed like one of them. The rain falls and the sun shines and the grass grows.

And morning follows night. Always.

Elie Wiesel’s novel about a man who believes that he lives in a world without God is appropriately entitled Night. Robert Frost, in writing of sadness and loneliness, says that he has been “acquainted with the night.”

Night comes in many, many forms. There is the physical night of disease, torment, and disability. There is the mental and emotional night of dementia, forgetfulness, and confusion. Night can form from regret and disappointment. Worry creates a long night. Fear darkens the world around us. It was the Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross who first referred to that phase of spiritual loneliness and desolation as the “dark night of the soul”.

But the lessons of life teach us that morning follows night as certainly as spring follows winter. And, in echoing that message, the scriptures teach us that while weeping may last for the night, our joy comes in the morning.

It was God’s first act, after creating the world itself, to dispel darkness. “Let there be light” is a mighty statement of hope and power. The "one light that Eden saw" was the very light of God, as morning broke for the first time over a new earth as yet unstained by sin.

Into your night of sin and lostness, morning has broken. Like on the first morning, God has said “let there be light” and has sent His only begotten Son.

Your night of sickness or disillusionment or betrayal may be at its darkest, but the lessons of life teach us that for those of us who are His, it is but a moment. Our God is the Father of light. Joy comes in the morning.

When you wake up tomorrow and see that, indeed, the darkness has gone and the sun has arisen, rejoice that morning has broken like that first morning. Say to yourself that the morning is yours, and understand that His feet are passing close by.

And He shall be like the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds. Your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. You will call for help, and He will say, “Here am I.” Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Morning has broken like the first morning.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Look Back at My Move Ten Years Later - Be Careful What You Teach Teenagers

One of my favorite chances to speak when I lived in Nashville was the opportunity our church's Youth Minister gave me to write dramatic scripts based on Biblical characters that our youth were studying during youth camp.

In 2000, the character was Abraham, and the drama dealt with God’s telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I wrote the drama with a voice over Abraham and a modern day character, played by me of course, who was dealing with God’s telling him to make a sacrifice.

I had not thought about that script for a couple of years until I found it while unpacking at my new home in Texas. I was hit between the eyes.

You see, the modern day character in my script was asked to sacrifice his job, home, and secure life in order to follow God’s call to another place.  I had some very convincing language in his lines about not understanding what God wanted, but if that was what God called me to do then, like Abraham, I was willing to make the sacrifice.  I would, to quote the script, “quit my job, put the house on the market, and tell my wife it is time to leave.”

It was a pretty good script.  It got the kids’ attention as they studied about following Gods commands, even when they do not understand them, and about being willing to sacrifice. Little did I think that it applied to me.  I had a secure law practice, a good home, and a life of church service that was, I had no doubt, squarely down the middle of God’s plan for my life.

Now hear me well - I think I was right.  Looking back, I believe that I was in fact doing my best to pursue God’s will.  I don’t think that you have to be a wandering prodigal making your way through the wilderness before God calls you somewhere else.  I don’t think the Bible indicates that Abraham was on the wrong road. In fact, I think it was precisely because he had shown such an ability to follow God that he was called to bigger and better things.

But what I tried to teach the kids through that script was that God is interested first and foremost in our listening to Him and our obeying Him. Sometimes, He explains Himself, and often times, He does not. Our understanding is not the point.  Our following is the point.

n   Noah did not understand about rain.
n   Joseph did not understand about dreams.
n   Moses did not understand flaming plants.
n   Caleb did not understand how his group of wanderers could defeat the giants in the land.
n   Balaam did not understand how a donkey could talk.
n   Ruth did not understand why she should go to the wheat fields.
n   Samuel did not understand why he was to anoint the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
n   Nehemiah did not understand why he should leave his cushy job as cupbearer to the king just to go build a wall.
n   Esther had no idea what her cousin meant by his phrase “for such a time as this.”
n   Job did not understand much of anything that was happening to him.
n   Solomon did not understand why all his toiling was a chasing after the wind.
n   Elijah did not understand why he should pour water on the altar.
n   Ezekiel did not understand why the Spirit led him into a desert full of bones.
n   Hosea did not understand why God wanted him to marry a prostitute.
n   Jonah did not understand about the worm and the weed.
n   Habakkuk did not understand why there were no grapes on the vine.
n   Matthew did not understand why he should leave his tax booth.
n   Zaccheus did not understand why he should climb down the tree.
n   Peter did not understand why he could not stay on the mountain.
n   Paul did not understand why he could not see.
n   Ananias did not understand why he had to meet Paul.
n   And, for a moment, Jesus did not understand why a cup was not taken from him.

These heroes have two things in common.  One is that they did not understand.  The other is that they followed anyway.  Some needed a little push - be it a big fish or a big fire or an audible voice - but they followed.

And that is what I taught some teenagers. If Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, then they should be willing to make whatever relatively small sacrifice God asked of them.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

I have no explanation for why God wanted me to move.  I had lots more to do in Nashville, in my church and in my Sunday School class and in my community. I was positioned to have some serious influence for the cause of Christ in Nashville over the next decades.

Now I am in Keller, Texas.  It makes no sense, but I went, and ten and a half years on the other side, I can see that it was right. I do not know that I can articulate yet why it was right, but God led us here.  He has not yet told us exactly why we had to come down out of our tree, to go to the wheat fields, perhaps to go build a wall or maybe even fight some giants.  He has not told us why we cannot see the whole plan.  We do not know why the call came at such a time as 2003.

Like a car on a Tennessee highway (my Texas friends don’t really understand this example) whose headlights only see to the top of the next hill, we can only see so far ahead on our road.  Of course, when we get to that spot - to the top of that hill - we can see further down the road.  We never actually reach the point where we can see no further.  And I found an old script that reminded me that that is ok.  I found a script by a very wise playwright that taught me that it is not the understanding that is important. It is the following, for we cannot find God unless we follow where He is leading us.

I recently used this story in a devotional with some young professionals, and one friend was surprised that someone like me, a lawyer and a debater devoted to logic, could express so freely that my faith includes significant lack of understanding.  To me, however, it is entirely logical to conclude that there are questions to which I have no answer.  The reason is not that there is no answer - that would not be logical.  The reason is that while I do not have the capacity to find or understand the answer, there is One who does.  It is entirely logical to me that the Creator, the Maker, the Master, the Lord, the One holds keys to locks that I do not yet even comprehend exist.

That, after all, is the message of the story of God's call to Abraham to take Isaac and the knife and the fire and go to a distant mountain. It was the moral of a little skit I wrote thirteen years ago for some bright young minds, never realizing how directly it would apply to me.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I'm Shocked! The Media and the Ostrich Syndrome

It is one of the great lines and funny moments of the greatest movie of all time, "Casablanca." Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, needs an excuse to please the Nazis and shut down Rick's Cafe Americain, and he chooses to use illegal gambling - about which he has known and in which he has regularly participated for years.

This week's NFL events surrounding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin remind me of the Ostrich Syndrome that pervades our media and our society as a whole.  There are so many issues about which we leave our heads well-buried in the sand until something happens that forces a response.  Suddenly, we are shocked... SHOCKED I say... that there is gambling going on this establishment. 

I am as big an ESPN fan as there is on the planet.  Our cable system gets five ESPN channels, and I have five separate ESPN apps on my smartphone.  I don't remember the last day I did not watch at least some SportsCenter.  My gripe here comes from a fan, not a critic.

If the names Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin don't mean anything to you, you can read the long version of the story here.  The short version is that these Miami Dolphins teammates are in the news because Incognito was mean to Martin, "bullying" him with threats and racial slurs and perhaps overtones of more kinds of discrimination.

I certainly do not defend Incognito. What he said and did was wrong.  If the Dolphins choose to discipline him, that is their internal business.

But I am shocked... shocked I say ... at the self-righteous uproar that the media - and particularly ESPN - have brought to this story.  During last night's Monday Night Football broadcast and the immediately following SportsCenter, and then again on this morning's SportsCenter, the on-air talent could not have been more offended at the language used by Incognito.  Scott Van Pelt began to read the expletive-deleted transcript you can find in the story to which I have linked above and quit midsentence, exclaiming that it was so inappropriate he could just not go on.  The story was picked up with equal head shaking and tongue clicking by the Today Show this morning.

Again, I am not defending the language used, and I am fine with its not being repeated on TV.

But for the media to wonder about the use of such language and the choice of some people to adopt such a condescending and, yes, mean attitude towards others is quite astounding.  Have they not watched a movie in the last 25 years?  Do they watch cable television?  And remember, these are so-called sports journalists.  Have they never been in a locker room or on a practice field?

The shock is not that Incognito said what he said.  The surprise is not that people are mean to each other for the fun of it.  The shock and the issue are that we are surprised by it.  These attitudes and this language are commonplace, and the media is no doubt involved.  I am not taking a position here as to whether Hollywood sets our mores or reflects them - I expect it is some combination of the two - but nobody can debate that Hollywood and the media in general have reveled in this type of attitude, language, and relationship.

We live in an increasingly intolerant, mean, uncivilized society - and the way we speak to each other is at the forefront of the problem.  Before we stick our head back into the sand, we need to start addressing the cause of the problem.  That cause is that we don't love each other enough.  That cause is that we speak as though we were in a fight to the death, convinced that our words were our last line of self-defense.

I hope that my ESPN channels start addressing the issue of why the Richie Incognitos of the world behave badly, but I doubt they will.  I expect that they, like Renault, will slyly take their winnings and move on.  I do not expect the Today Show to address it meaningfully either, although they may have a psychologist or two on in the last hour of a slow news day.

The issue is for us, our families, our schools, and our churches.  The issue is how we treat one another.  The issue is as old as Cain and Abel. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lord of the Dance

I have recently come across English poet Sydney Carter's 1967 masterpiece "Lord of The Dance." Our choir sang a setting of it recently as part of a concert.  It is worth sharing with you here.

Told in metaphor from the point of view of Jesus, the poem reads:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun. I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
I came down from Heaven and I danced on Earth. At Bethlehem I had my birth.

Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the dance, said He!

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, but they would not dance, and they wouldn't follow me.
I danced for fishermen, for James and John. They came with me, and the dance went on.

I danced on the Sabbath, and I cured the lame. The holy people said it was a shame!
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high, and they left me there on a cross to die!

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body, and they thought I'd gone, but I am the dance and I still go on!

They cut me down, and I leapt up high. I am the life that'll never, never die!
I'll live in you if you'll live in Me. I am the Lord of the dance, said He!

Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!

 When my choir first sang this piece, I did not care for it. Not because I have some Puritan views about dancing, because I don’t. I just thought the metaphor was a stretch. Then I sang it again. Suddenly, it made sense. Now I cannot get it out of my head… and I mean that in a good way.

 We do not sing metaphors very often in church. We will use occasional symbols: usually water and wine and bread. I can think of a few similes – “Like a River Glorious” comes to mind. When we do use metaphors, they tend to be militaristic – “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Some of our metaphorical hymns simply lift a real scriptural story and apply it to us symbolically – think “Rock of Ages,” which takes a real story of Moses’s face being shielded from the glory of God and uses it to talk about God’s protectively hiding us in the cleft of the figurative rock.

 This poem is different. It is not in the least militaristic. It is not based on familiar figures like water or bread. And it certainly does not take a real scriptural depiction of dance – yes, David danced before the Lord, and perhaps Jesus took a turn on the floor at the Cana wedding, but the language of this poetry is obviously not directly lifted from scripture.

 Still, I find the metaphor of Jesus as the dancer - and the dance, and the leader of the dance – to be lovely and apropos. The accompaniment, especially at the beginning, takes an old American Shaker hymntune ("Simple Gifts," for those of you who know it) to a new level of playfulness, and the joy of Jesus in His role at creation takes flight. The idea of Christ’s actions with James and John, and with the Pharisees, and with those who came to Him for healing as part of a dance take me theologically to places we seldom explore – how big a picture did Jesus see as He walked the earth? How much of the work of Christ was preordained as the Father and the Son planned this ministry. Which steps were improvised and which were carefully composed ahead of time in order to lead to the next event? How much of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 was a necessary move so that Jesus’s stories to the Pharisees in Luke 14 would flow and make sense, and in turn how did this dance move so that the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension would follow in turn? Was the conversation with the rich young ruler an early step that led to the Prodigal Son which in turn set up the climax of the Last Supper?

 “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back” is, to me, a tremendously … moving, yes, but more than that … pungent description of the struggle between the One who wants to dance and the one who has no sense of the rhythm of the world, no idea of the choreography of eternity. The dance of course overcomes the one who cannot hear the music, just as it always does, and the joy returns as Dancing Jesus leaps up high.

 You may picture the dance here as a beautiful ballet, with intricate intimacies as different characters interact. You may think of a Broadway showstopper, with precision and athleticism and legwarmers and some dance captain calling out “5,6,7,8” as though in a rehearsal of "A Chorus Line."

 I, however, am a much simpler dancer. I read this poem and think of the Texas Two-step.

 There are really only two keys to two-stepping well. Yes, it helps to be told where to put your feet and to be able to pick out the bass line in the music, but really, if you want to two-step with me, it is all about two things. First, you need to feel my hand on your back, for I promise that I will tell you through that hand where we are going. Second, you need to let me lead. Don’t fight against me, don’t try to follow a different beat, and for heaven's sake please don’t just stand there and make me drag you. No, let me lead. Trust me. Trust that I have two-stepped before and that I know where we are going. Trust that I will not step on your toes or run you into another couple. Let me lead, and trust me.

“Dance, then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance,” said He.
“And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said He.

 His hand is on us, gently directing in the right way. Trust Him as he leads.

 What a joy it is to dance!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Late Quartet

I have not dedicated this space to a movie review in a while, but I saw a movie on a plane this week that I believe deserves comment. There are spoilers in this blog, so read at your peril. The movie is "A Late Quartet."

This movie is, to me, a look into struggles that each of us humans faces on a daily basis, even as we continue to play music together. The quartet represents us (whether you define "us" as humanity or the church or the community or your particular group of cohorts and colleagues), and the music (a Beethoven masterpiece in the movie) is our performance, our work, our offering to the world. Along the way, we risk playing the music badly and even abandoning the quartet altogether because of what life throws at us.

The first quartet member is Peter, the elder of the group. He is not only their oldest, he is the wisest. Many of the struggles that the other players face are behind him - we never learn which of these he had to face along the way, and it does not matter now. What matters to Peter is the music, that it be played well and that the playing continue. Peter's struggle is with disease, and it comes on several levels. There is his own malady that threatens his ability to play. There is the sickness that has taken his wife, his life partner, from him. And, more subtly, there is the cancer that is tearing the quartet asunder. This last is not a medical problem, but it is a disease nonetheless; and Peter sees it destroying the group's ability to make music as surely as his own illness will soon prevent him personally from playing.

Second is Daniel, the youngest and most talented of the group. Daniel's struggle is with self-absorbed obsession, manifesting itself in various ways. He is obsessed with his craft, striving to play each note with precision and perfection, making sure that every interpretation that has ever occurred to him along the way be incorporated into each performance, as he never dares take his eyes off his annotated score. He is obsessed with making bows, firing the wood just so and choosing the horsehairs with intentionality and purpose. He is obsessed - albeit hesitantly at first - with the lovely Alexandra. Ultimately, he is obsessed with himself, with his goals and personal expectations of how the music (both his and everyone else's) must sound. He may be fairly described as having the good of the quartet always in mind, and yet he cannot escape his own ambition as the filter through which he views the history and the purpose - and ultimately the future - of the quartet.

Next is Juliette, the group's only woman and the glue holding the others together. She is the one with unique relationships with each of the other three - student of one, admirer/past lover of another, and wife of the third. Her struggle is with disappointment. She walks in a cloud, haunted by her past. Her present circumstances result from a series of choices she has made. None of the choices can, on its own, be called wrong or mistaken or incorrect; yet, taken together in totality, her life's choices have led her to a place where she no longer knows herself.  Her husband and daughter are strangers, and her future is untenable. All she has left is the music; and the prospect of losing - or even changing - the quartet is unacceptable to her. Struggling with her past, she clings to the one present good of which she is sure.

Finally, there is Robert, the group's Everyman. Robert is talented, but not as gifted as Daniel. Robert is mature, but not as wise as Peter. Robert is reliable, but not as steady as Juliette. Robert undeniably loves the music; in fact, he is evangelistic about the necessity for others to hear and fully appreciate it. Robert, more than any of the others, sees possibilities in the music that have not yet been performed. He is ready to move off the written page and play from the heart. Robert is, therefore, each of us - maybe not the best, the smartest, or the most valuable, but the one who can see where the performance should go and the one who is willing to take risks so that the quartet can play even better. Robert, however, has his own struggle, and it is the struggle of failure. Robert sins. Robert gives in to temptation. Perhaps because of his Everyman identity, the consequences of his failure cut us to the quick. We understand why he has fallen, and we accept his immediate repentance. We want him to receive forgiveness faster than those he has injured want to give it to him. We want the ripples caused by his stumble to be halted before they destroy. We don't want his sin to find him out, though we know this hope is futile. We see in Robert our own tendency to wander, for we are all sinful.  We are all faced with temptation.  We all fail.

Through all of these struggles, what happens to the music? It starts and stops. It is played beautifully. Then, maybe, it seems that it will never be played again. Ultimately, thankfully, the quartet is not dependent on the current occupants of the seats - the music was written by the master and is greater than what any one player - or even what four great players - can produce. The music will be played. Quartets - and beginning grade school soloists and philharmonic orchestras and everything in between - will continue to rise and never let the notes go silent.

We struggle with disease and the physical frailty of our lives. We grapple with our own obsessions and selfishness and personal ambition, even as they hamper the work of our quartet. We reel in the aftermath of decisions of our past that we can never undo. And we stumble daily in our failures and weaknesses and sins. Still, the music plays.

The question is never whether the music will die, for it cannot. The question is whether we can overcome our struggles so that we continue to find our seat in the quartet. The master has written the music. The time has come to close the page and play from the heart.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Can a Political Conservative Survive in a Non-Fundamentalist Church?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Moral Majority was wrong when it declared that you had to vote certain ways if you were a Christian.  I have no patience today for conservatives who declare that the Bible requires a vote for a certain governmental policy, as if the government is what Jesus had in mind as the implementer of His commandments and ideals.

I believe that there is a 21st Century version of the Moral Majority, and it is made up of Progressive Liberal Christians. They publish blogs like this and this that proclaim that there is only one way to be a Christian in your politics. I'm not making this up - some of these blogs say in their very title that you cannot disagree with them and still follow Jesus.

Typically, these bloggers and commentators and preachers declare that we Christians must be in favor of universal health care and a significantly increased federal minimum wage, and we must be against the death penalty, gun rights, and war. Many of them declare that Christianity demands a certain position on governmental recognition of gay marriage, tax policy, "help for the poor" (although they are typically very short on definition or detail), and immigration rights.

Hear me: I have no objection to their taking strong political positions, nor do I have any problem with their basing their position on their (and my) religious convictions. What I object to is their telling me that I "cannot" vote the way I do and still "follow Jesus."

Here is an interesting quote: "They proceed with the certitude that they are right, that their reading of Scripture is the only reading of Scripture, and their application of that reading of Scripture is the only application of Scripture that makes for Christian, and then when they don’t use that word, they use the word 'Godly Christians,' with the implication that other people who don’t agree are ungodly." Any idea of the source? It is Norman Lear, the producer of "All in the Family," "Maude," and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," speaking in 1982 about the Jerry Falwell-led Moral Majority.

How the worm has turned. As Hollywood and the press and much of contemporary Christianity has shouted down (often correctly, I might add) the insufferable self-proclaimed superiority of right-wing Christian absolutists, the vacuum has been filled by left-wing Christian absolutists. I have written about this before, in response to a rant from Stephen Colbert on how followers of Jesus should see the political spectrum.

I think the the Bible is very clear about loving people, taking care of the poor, welcoming the stranger, and turning the other cheek. I do not think, however, the Bible is very clear that loving people requires forcing everyone to pay more involuntary taxes so that some people can receive more unearned aid, that everyone (including the poor) should pay more for goods and services and that many should give up having jobs at all so that wages can be increased for those who are still working, that totalitarianism and brutality should go unchecked on the world stage, or that everyone deserves insurance to pay for contraception and plastic surgery.

Jesus spoke of peace.  Jesus healed.  Jesus fed the hungry.  Jesus did all this under the eyes of the Emporer, his armies, and his governors.  Not once did Jesus take on the government; He was too busy taking on the religious leaders who were telling the local folks the things they had to do based on the only approved view of scripture.  Not once did He set about preaching that Rome should alter its politics to match His gospel.

That did not mean that Jesus did not believe what He said.  I think it means that He was not about having governments using the force of law to force His ideas involuntarily on citizens.

I treat my employees exceptionally well, and I work for a company that doesn't pay anything close to as low as the minimum wage. I do not own a gun. I give way more than I am required by the tax code to multiple causes that help the poor. I am doing my best to follow Jesus. And I vote conservatively. I have an economic view that dictates, for me, what I believe is ultimately the best way to make sure that poverty is dealt with. I have a political view that leads, I believe, to the widest scale good for the most people. I am tired of being called mean and nasty because of my vote, but I am used to it.  What I am not used to is being called names like that by other Christians, and I am certainly not used to having my Christianity questioned - or outright denied - by other Christians because my politics and economics do not align with the politically correct crowd.

Several months ago, I wrote the following. It was meant to be ironic: I admit it; I hate poor people. I have decided it is time to quit pretending. I hate poor people; especially poor sick people. We have been figured out, so we might as well quit pretending. To be a true conservative requires undiluted, unthinking hatred. I hate poor people.And uninsured sick people. And don't forget homeless children - they really get my dander up. Those kids are obviously out to game the system. In fact, the only people I hate more than the poor are Arabs. And of course homosexuals. And Communists - but there just aren't many of them around to hate anymore.And of course, I hate all members of the media, especially Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Well, all of them except for Rush and Hannity and Sarah Palin. I love them. I don't really know why, but I do. What I really want is a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Because I really love rich people. If I had it my way, rich people would not have to pay any taxes at all, just as a reward for being rich. Life is all about money, right? If you are rich, that means you have won, so the government should get off your back. I also hate people who talk about climate. Who cares about the weather? Those are the same people who close businesses down just to protect some minnow somewhere. What a bunch of losers. I guess my point is this: Why should we keep pretending we care about issues? Why should we try to say that we have ideas that are better ways to help people? Why should we keep insisting that there is actual thought behind conservative economic policy? Why can't we just admit the truth? We hate poor people. There. I've said it. I feel so much better.

I did not publish that at the time, because I was afraid of being misunderstood.   I was afraid my irony would be lost on some. 

In fact,  I really believe that many of my Progressive Christian brothers and sisters believe that the above paragraph actually describes most political and economic conservatives, even Christian conservatives. I do not want to have to join a fundamentalist congregation just to avoid being ostracized and demonized by the Christians around me. I should not have to.

I would ask all Christians, whatever your political beliefs, to look in the mirror when you hear these words:    "They proceed with the certitude that they are right, that their reading of Scripture is the only reading of Scripture, and their application of that reading of Scripture is the only application of Scripture that makes for Christian, and then when they don’t use that word, they use the word 'Godly Christians,' with the implication that other people who don’t agree are ungodly."

For years, it was the liberal Christians who trumpeted the truths of separation of church and state and of independent judgment unfettered by religious fervor in political discourse. Now we have a liberal president who justifies his economic policies with out of context language from the Gospel of Matthew.

Conviction should not be voiced only when it suits you. If you don't want me shoving my view of scripture down your throat at the voting booth, quit shoving your view down mine.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Who Is Your God?

My 16-year-old daughter Carolyn recently told me about a conversation that had arisen in her youth group Sunday School class a couple of years ago about different perceptions of God.  Carolyn had raised the issue that every person in the class might actually view God differently and have a different idea of God, yet they all worship the same God.  The teachers in the class were not really interested in pursuing this discussion.

You can go here to see a slide show entitled "Images of God."  It will show you rainbows and storm clounds, children's faces, simply drawn depictions of the face of Jesus, mountains and waves and planets, church pews and cathedrals and priests saying mass, starlight and firelight and sunlight, Bibles, abstract art, medieval art, modern art, old men, crosses, bread and wine, a potter's wheel, and many faces of God's people.  We are, after all, made in God's image.

Who is God to you? How do you see God?

Creator - The vision of many is dominated by the first verse of the Bible - "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."  They worship the creative force to whom they owe their very existence.

The Almighty - I do not believe I have ever heard my father pray in a church setting in which he did not address "Almighty God." It is the view of the creature acknowledging the omnipotent one.  It is the view that hears the voice of God in the book of Job asking the question "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?  Tell me if you understand."  This view of God is often perfectly happy to say "I don't understand, and that does not matter.  God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."

Father - I do not mean this, necessarily, in a masculine way.  Those whose view of God centers on Him as "Father" do not mean it in a gender role nearly as much as they mean it in  the best sense of fathers - encouraging, nurturing, providing, welcoming.  The view of God as Father emphasizes God's strong arms when we hurt, God's giving heart when we need, God's understanding when we fail.  He is the waiting Father from the parable of the prodigal son, straining His eyes down the road for the first sign that we are returnting to Him.

The Sustaining Life Force - This will sound far too mystical to some and too New Age to others.  It smacks of "Star Wars" and Eastern religion to still others.  But to many a Christian, the view of God is primarily an understanding of a spiritual energy that is too hard to contain in any body or word or picture.  No old man with a white beard will suffice to encompass God.  Jesus taught that God is spirit, and to those who worship God this way, the understanding of God is best explained as a sensing of God's power in God's people and creation.

Love - Jesus said it plainly: God is love.  There are those who find God, at least in glimpses, by experiencing love in all its facets.

Beauty - Many find God by seeing creation, the work God does through us, or a moment of sublime music.

And I think all of this is OK. I understand why youth Sunday School teachers might want to shy away from the idea that God presents differently to different ones of us, but I also understand - I think - that God is so much bigger and more complex than we can grasp.  Eye has not seen nor has ear heard.  How unfathomable are the ways of God.  If none of us can get our minds around God, then we may all see God differently.  To all of these different views of God, I say yes, and yes, and yes, and yes.  There are some days when I see God in each of these ways.

Jesus, of course, gives us the avenue to see God the same, for Jesus is the exact representation of God.  Because of Jesus, as I wrote here, we are not just like the blind men trying to descibe an elephant when we try to talk about God.

Still, I do not fault anyone whose view of God takes a different turn from another's view.  I am not suggesting that picturing Morgan Freeman or Charlton Heston or Buddha is a reasonable view of God, but I understand why one would see the almighty God reaching from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and another would see a rose or a nebula or a child's face.

Carolyn was onto something.  God is too big and too complex for us to fathom, and that may mean that you see Him a little differently that I do.  I am thankful that we have Jesus as the place where we can come together and find all of God in a package.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

When the Wine Runs Out

At Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky, I heard Pastor Bob Fox preach my aunt’s funeral service. He used the story of Jesus’s changing water into wine as a symbol of my aunt’s hope and growth after personal devastation in her own life.

So I am borrowing some from Bob, because we all want to have our water turned to wine.

The gospel of John doesn’t speak of miracles, preferring the word signs.  The actions of God’s power in the world through Jesus are not merely wonders, but signifiers that point to another reality.  And John, so that we don’t miss it, says that this first sign of Jesus manifests his glory.

In the funeral service, Bob talked about a pattern made up of a celebration, a grief, and then a better celebration.  In that pattern there is a manifestation of God’s glory.  God is present both in joy and in sorrow.  And in our sorrow, Jesus is working to bring us joy. 

For us, I would describe the pattern as the joy, the mundane, and then a better, renewed joy.  In that pattern too is the manifestation of the glory of God.  And like grief, our mundane times also are visited by God – He is present even then.  And in our mundane times, Jesus is at work to prepare us (in the words of Frank Lewis) for what He has prepared for us – renewal, service, a greater joy.

I don’t know exactly when the wine ran out for each of you reading this, and I don't know precisely how your life has manifested the symbolic lack of wine. For some, it has been disease or divorce or depression.  For others, it is a loss of enthusiasm for work or relationship or church.  For still others, it is simply the continuation of the same, the mundane.  And for all of us, it is our choice not to rely on the supernatural as we strive for our own independence, our own self-reliance.
To say that the wine has run out does not mean that you are dead, dying, living in sin, or ineffective.  Drinking water is perfectly acceptable – it can even be healthy.  Don't read this expecting a rehash of how you got to where you are now.  It does not matter. The point of the water-to-wine story is not the water; the points are the wine and the winemaker. 

The Problem – The wine has run out.

This is not just a problem for the drunks in the crowd.  It is not even just a minor social faux pas.  It is a big deal – the host at a wedding had an obligation to provide, and in that day, wine was required.  The host could actually be sued for a want of hospitality.

The Jewish rabbis had a saying, “Without wine there is no joy.” 

Of course, this is not just a story about a party.  It is not just a story about a wedding.  And it is not just a story about a lack of alcohol.

Our wine can run out too.   When we have no resources available, we tend to turn to diversion.

Note that John says “When the wine ran out…”  It is expected.  Our wine always, eventually, runs out.  We weary of doing good.  Note also that the wine ran out while Jesus is at the party. Just because Jesus is there does not mean the wine will not run out.

Frank Lewis has another favorite saying: “It is always too soon to quit.”  When the wine runs out, what do we do?

When the wine runs out, we turn to Jesus.

Mary could go shopping.  She could ask the neighbors to borrow wine.  She could start berating the help.  She does none of that.  She turns instead to the source.  She tells Jesus the problem, and then she manifests the great faith to say to those around her, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Mary does not know what Jesus will do, but she knows Jesus. 

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker that a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign power in the universe whose name is God; and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

Jesus does not just change things; He brings abundance.

Jesus does not get rid of the water. Nor does he always simply make the struggles and vexations of our lives vanish. Instead, He turns the water into wine, and they only know how sweet it is who have tasted it.

The response, “You have saved the best till now,” reminds us that the result is not just doctored water but changed substance.  Jesus does not mess around and redecorate.  Jesus transforms.

Tom Lane asks, “If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine, spit and dirt into new sight, troubled sea into pathway, well water into living water…could Christ transform the waters of my life, shallow, murky, polluted, stagnant, sour, into a shower of blessing?”

Paul says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  Find that perfect will.  Feast on the abundant good wine.

Monday, April 22, 2013

One Overwhelming Thought after Boston and West

This has been a tough week. I write a week after the attack in Boston.  We have seen the explosions in West, Texas, a town through which I regularly drive, this week. 

The events in Boston and West have reminded us of intentional evil and accidental devastation. I write not about why God allows either.  I have written about that, and will again, but this blog is something different.

In response to Boston and West, there has been a seeming consensus, including in what I have heard and seen from many church leaders (thankfully, not from my own pastor): The heroism of bystanders in Boston who ran towards the explosions in order to save runners and the kindness of the citizens of West to families of victims have been praised as the only good to be seen, the only source of hope in the midst of these events. Social media has seemingly been filled with this quote attributed to Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always see people who are helping.’”

Do not get me wrong. I am in favor of kindness, heroism, and hospitality. I am glad there are helpers in the scary times. But these are not the greatest thing to see this week. Not every helper in Boston or first responder in West was a Christian. If kindness is all we Christians have to point to in a week like this, then we have nothing more than the rest of the world.

The greatest thing about this week is that Jesus offers life. If this week makes us forget that Christ is Lord, then we need to do some basic reexamination. Jesus knew we would have weeks like this when He said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Our hope does not spring from the kindness of strangers. Our hope comes from the One whom we worship, the One who sees our need and our despair and makes a miracle where there is none to be seen.

We are Easter people. In death, there is resurrection. In Christ, there is life. Even in terror and fertilizer explosions, there is hope through the One who has overcome the world.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blessed assurance control: That Christ has regarded my helpless estate and has shed His own blood for my soul.

It is well.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Night Before Easter

‘Tis the night before Easter, and all through the town, not a creature is stirring.  No gladness is found.
Disciples each cower alone in their bed. They fear for tomorrow.  Their Master is dead.

And I, in my sorrow, my shame and despair, try now to forget what it was to be there.
I was there in the garden. I was there for the trial. I was there for betrayal.  I was there for denial.

I hid in the crowd as He toiled up the hill. I watched from afar as they closed in to kill.
Between other crosses, His rose in the sky, as though to allow me to look in His eye.

I heard Him cry “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And I turned away.
Disgraced, in retreat, from the Skull-place I ran. Still I heard the hammers drive nails in His hands.

So now, as my slumber by heartbreak is torn, the hour passes midnight and heads to the morn.

I hear, or I dream, that there is such a clatter that women are running to see what is the matter.
The dawn on the crest of the newly-bought tomb gives a luster of brightness dispersing the gloom.

Then Mary is startled by two men in white who stand there beside her and give her a fright.
They say, “He is risen, just as He said! Why look for the living among all the dead?”

I open my eyes: this cannot be real. This is an illusion that day will reveal
To be but a dream, science fiction, a lie. I surely must know, for I saw Him die.

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but the face of the Master.  As I look, He comes near.
No door has He opened.  No window broke through.  Yet He stands right before me, the same Jesus who,
Spilling water and blood, was pierced with a spear.  He died just last Friday, yet now He is here.

His aura might cause me to ask who He is, but His voice, when He speaks, leaves no doubt: it is His.
His smile speaks forgiveness.  His arms open wide, as though I had never abandoned His side.

Why is this important?  What can it all mean?  His death on the cross is what washed us all clean.
But death could not cheat Him.  He’s fought, and He’s won.  His victory means our new life is begun.

 I follow His lead.  With His love I’m endowed.  I know I can trust Him, for he rose as He vowed. 
The grave cannot hold us.  Our souls will survive.  The world now is different, for Christ is alive!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

How to Recruit Prospective College Students

Having just returned from taking my daughter Carolyn to visit six colleges this week, and having gone through eighteen official visits with my two older children so far, I fancy myself something of an expert on the subject.  In case you are interested in opening up your own university and trying to recruit students, here is the tried and true formula that is endorsed by every school we have seen:

First, you need a recent graduate of your school, preferably in his or her mid-20s, who cannot get a real job and so has hung around the old alma mater as an assistant admissions counselor, which means he or she reads a few thousand essays of 18-year-olds who want to come to this school and also that he or she gives the one-hour presentation about your school.  This assistant counselor should be good-looking but should make an obvious attempt to be just a little bit nerdy in order to appear academic - a sweater and glasses are required, and some other dweeby touch (like maybe a checked shirt with a striped tie) will complete the look.  One terribly corny joke is required.

Once you have this assistant admissions counselor picked out, you need to teach him/her the script:  "Here at ______ U, we are happy to welcome you and are glad you are taking the time to visit.  Let me say at the outset that if you are looking for a place that is just like all the others, then _________ U is not for you.  We are unique.  For example, we actually value undergraduate research, and we have set aside millions of dollars that is just waiting for you if you come to school here.  Our run-of-the-mill undergraduates have, in the last year or so, discovered the cure for fibromyalgia, redesigned Pringles cans, and developed prosthetic limbs for amphibians.  We know that our campus is where you will want to spend all your time, so naturally 100% of our students study abroad for a semester.  While we only have a few classes with over 300 students in them, we promise that every professor will know your name by the third minute of class.  Our campus is not too big but not too small, and it is located in the perfect rural/urban/suburban town/city, not too far from the action but not too close to distractions.  All our students were in the top 3% of their high school class, but we do not really think your high school grades are an important part of the admissions process.  Similarly, we do not overvalue standardized tests, and all of our students just happen to have made a 2300 on the SAT.  97% of our students are on need-blind, merit-based scholarships, but make sure to fill out the FAFSA and all financial aid information just in case."

Next, after this admissions counselor has finished, you next need very attractive and articulate undergraduates to lead campus tours.  There should be nothing remotely nerdy about these students, who should emit health and love for ___________ U in every breath.  Their script is also easy to learn:  "I love it here at __________ U.  I have to spend about 5 hours studying for every ten minutes in class, and that of course leaves time for my fraternity/sorority, my seven service organizations, my four intramural teams, the religious activity of my choice (which of course is completely optional but easily available here at ______ U), and my frequent dinners in the homes of my teachers.  The faculty here at _______ U have really been great to me, emailing me weekly just to check up on my grandmother's health, lending me a puppy when I am lonely, and giving me their spare household appliances.  Greek life at ___________ U is very unusual, since unlike most schools, we delay rush until the second semester and actually have friends who are in other clubs... at least, most people know people who are in other sororities, and I know of two people who spoke to unaffiliated sophomores last year.  We are a very safe campus, but just in case, we have emergency phones every fifteen feet on campus, and our university police force is made up entirely of Navy SEALs.  We offer a ride service on weekend nights for students who are... ahem... too sleepy to get themselves home.  Now, as we tour campus, I think those are academic buildings over there, but let me take you to each of our nineteen dining facilities, our all-you-can-eat Chick Fil-A, all three Starbucks, and our smoothie counter.  Fortunately, we have a great workout center that is larger than the administration building and library put together.  Here at ____________ U, we really focus on our studies."

Make sure that you have dozens of glossy fliers in plastic bags to hand out to the students.  They all say the same thing, so don't worry too much about which ones you give to which students. 

After so many meetings, I am glad my kids have such clear decisions to make.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Going Home Again

I don't care what they say - you can go home again, at least for a little while.

I moved to Nashville when I was eight years old.  I graduated high school here.  After law school and marriage, Gena and I came back here to live for thirteen years.  So I have lived here for 22 or 23 years of my life.  We have been back periodically over the last ten years since we left, and I always feel that I am coming home again.

I do not mean to disparage my current home town.  We have a good life where we are, with friends, good jobs, and a church family.

Still. if you ask me where "home" is, I will always say Nashville.

Staying with good friends.  Driving around the city.  Going to church.  It is home.

But home really is people.  Some people are out of town this weekend.  We haven't seen them all.  But we have seen plenty.  I will change the names here, since I have not asked permission, but my friends will recognize themselves.

Craig and Lisa shared all about their kids who are now in college.  I was in their wedding in a different state, and I have known him for many years.  There is nothing to "catch up on" when we get back together.  There is nothing discernable that has been missed.  We simply pick back up.

Greg and Norma immediately dive into conversation with us.  We have traveled together, raised kids together, gone through heartache together.  And now we sit and talk once again.

Peter knows me in ways nobody else does.  I don't exactly know why, except that he and I are cut from the same cloth.  We understand each other with nothing more than an exchange of looks across a room.

Leslie does not change.  I have known her since I was in high school and she was just out of college, and she and her husband Bob have always been something of role models for Gena and me.  She never changes.

I sat in the congreagation and looked up into the choir loft, where I had my place for years.  I saw dozens of faces, some new but mostly of folks with whom I sang and communed and grew and shared and lived.

We went to the hospital this afternoon.  It happens that while we are home, our friend Sharon has just had surgery, so we dropped in to see her and her husband Mike.  Another friend of a couple of dozen years, Rob, was there as well.

Lunch with several families.  Conversations.  Just seeing some faces.  Sam and Angie.  Stan and Mary.  Melissa.

The buildings are nice.  The streets are largely the same.  The scenery brings back memories.

But when I see and talk with and love on the people, I know that I have come home again.