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February 19, 2018, 11:25 AM

Thoughts & Prayers


 

Once again, a gunman with a grudge against the world has walked into a school and opened fire with random, murderous malice. 

We’ve seen these atrocities in other schools (including two in our area) and in churches.  We have seen wholesale slaughter in a nightclub in Orlando, a cinema in Colorado, and at a concert in Vegas.

The most recent mass killing in Florida took place on the tenth anniversary of a massacre at Northern Illinois University in which the only child of a friend of mine was cut down by a heavily armed man with a long psychiatric history who then killed himself.

After every one of these atrocities, our politicians rush to TV cameras to say their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims.  But, nothing changes.  The slaughter continues.

I find myself recalling the words of the prophet Amos who expressed God’s fiery indignation over displays of piety in the kingdom of Israel that did not lead to acts of justice…

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
 Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
 But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5: 21-24)

Some people like to claim that the reason for school shootings is that “God isn’t allowed in school” any more.  Actually, personal prayer has never been banned, and is even protected by numerous Supreme Court rulings.  But, that fact aside…the kind of carnage that we see repeated over and over in this country is virtually unknown in many countries that are FAR more secular than ours.  And, last I checked, prayer is still pretty common in churches where there have also been monstrous attacks.  In fact, the crimes took place during worship and prayer meetings.

“Thoughts and prayers” have too often become replacements for any other form of action.

We’re Southern enough in Southern Illinois to be familiar with that bit of Christian passive/aggression that goes, “I’ll pray for you.”  It’s kinda like, “Bless your heart.”  It’s a throwaway term, that means something a good deal less pious than it sounds.  “I’ll pray for you” is too often code for…”You’re hopeless and I don’t intend to really do anything for you.”

 

Our society is in the grip of an existential spiritual crisis.  One symptom is the mindless violence which we see perpetrated  in random ways.  Another symptom is the opioid epidemic that kills more Americans each year than did during the entire Vietnam War.

At the root of both lethal trends is profound alienation and despair.  They are both the result and the cause of a terrible, soul-crushing loneliness.  In some people, it leads to a spiritual implosion.  They collapse into themselves in a death spiral of despair, using powerful drugs, or simply turning their guns on themselves.  Others, filled with rage and resentment, explode in acts of barbarous violence.

But they are all lonely and filled with despair.

This is the deeper disease that threatens us all.   Even if it doesn’t lead us to addiction or violence, it damages our souls when we look upon such tragedies as “just the way it is” and become  numb to them.  It is a profoundly spiritual crisis , because it is about the lack of  hope and connection and meaning.

I’ve had people accuse me of questioning or denying the power of prayer because I have expressed deep frustration with the way people respond to horror after horror by offering “thoughts and prayers” without those thoughts or prayers ever seeming to change this constant carnage.  No, what I am questioning is how seriously they are taking their prayer life.  What I am saying is that this is something that should be said with deadly seriousness and not used as a throwaway line because you can’t think of anything else to say and don’t want to put the effort into finding answers, or being an answer.

REAL prayer is powerful, transformative, and dangerous.  It’s dangerous because it puts us at God’s disposal.  Like the prophet Isaiah, who answered, “Here I am, Lord!  Send me!”

Too many prayers  start and end with, “Please fix it for us, and the sooner the better.”

What’s missing is the part where you say, “Dear God, I may not be able to fix this whole problem.  But, I want to know what I can do.  Make me an instrument of your will and your peace.”

Have you done that with this problem?  How often do you do it with any problem?

Jesus lived about 90% of his life in complete obscurity.  Which was much safer and easier for him.  I suspect he looked at the troubled and violent world around him and thought and prayed about its plight for quite awhile. But,  eventually, his thoughts and prayers led him to take action.

The baptism he underwent, was billed by John as an act of repentance.  Again, that’s not just saying you’re sorry, it’s a dramatic change of direction in one’s life.  Jesus decided after years of safe obscurity, to step out of the water of the Jordan and into the glare of the spotlight.  He knew he would pay a terrible price, but the world was (and is) in terrible need of a courageous love.

He had no illusions that he could change everything by himself.  But he could make a start.  He now calls on us to carry on his work.  And he has promised his presence when we do so.

By all means, think and pray about what is happening to our children and our society.  But don’t just toss it into God’s lap and walk away.  Pray as Francis of Assissi did… “Lord, make ME an instrument of your peace.”

Pray with a repentant heart that is open to being transformed and sent in a new direction.

Come to think of it, that is what Lent is all about.




December 7, 2017, 1:07 PM

Are you Living BC or AD?


I am a lifelong lover and student of history.

While the study of it is far more than the mere memorization of dates, name, and places…knowing the dates of significant events is certainly an important part of it.  I even got out of a sixth grade history exam by being the only student who could answer the question, “When was the Battle of Hastings?”

Of course, we mark the years using two designations; BC and AD.  As everyone knows, BC means “Before Christ.”  For some reason, most people still seem to think AD means “After Death.”

No!

It comes from the Latin, “Anno Domini” which means “The Year of Our Lord.”

These days, many people use the designations BCE and CE…which mean “Before the Common Era” and “Common Era.”  They see it as being more inclusive of those who do not acknowledge Jesus as the Lord.  But, the fact remains, that the turning point in the very way we mark the passage of time is the birth of Jesus.  (Which why it makes no sense that people think AD means “After Death.”)

Actually, it’s likely that our dating system is off by a few years.  Most historians think Jesus was born somewhere between 6-3 BC.  Hardly surprising.  He has always been ahead of his time!

There is virtually no reason to believe that Jesus was born on December 25.  The date to celebrate what the early church called the “Mass of the Christus”  (Christ-Mass) was chosen decades after Jesus walked the earth.  Church leaders decided that it was fitting to have a celebration of his birth, and they basically co-opted a pagan celebration known as the Saturnalia, which took place at the time of the Winter Solstice.

So, we don’t really know the day, month, or year in which Jesus was born.

Why is that?  Quite frankly, it’s because he was essentially a “nobody” to most of the world at the time of his birth.  Born to poor peasants who possessed no power or importance, he went largely unnoticed.

By the end of his life, he had achieved moderate local fame.  But, he so threatened the political and religious establishments that even bitter rivals within them colluded to destroy him in as gruesome and humiliating a way as possible. On top of that, the crowds also turned against him and bellowed for his blood.  One of his closest followers sold him out and several others deserted him.

In short, his life and ministry seemed to collapse into ignominious defeat.  He seemed doomed to sink back into obscurity, as did most people with similar stories.  There were a lot of failed messiahs whose names are lost to us.  Anonymous footnotes, at best.

Yet, this is the guy who would become so pivotal in human history that we measure that history by his coming, no matter which initials you use to mark the years before and since his appearance.

As a student of history, I cannot come up with another figure who started and lived most of his life in such obscurity, was a public figure for only a short time, and whose life seemed to end in such completely catastrophic defeat…who went on to become anything near so astonishingly influential.  Even non-Christians and totally secular commentators admit that Jesus has had an impact on the course of history which affects us all in profound ways.

He is genuinely unique.

How did that happen?

By all accounts, we should have forgotten him long ago.  But there is something about him that persists.  Something happened that caused the people who had once abandoned and betrayed him to turn around and risk (and sometimes lose) their lives and freedom for insisting  that this man was not defeated, and wasn’t even dead.  They did so, in the face of ruthless and sometimes murderous opposition from their own culture and from the mightiest empire on earth.

Let’s be clear.  They could have said, “Jesus was a good guy!  So, good that it’s like his goodness hung around after he was tortured to death.”  Such a declaration would have been seen as fairly reasonable and neither blasphemous toward the God of Israel, nor threatening to the power and prestige of the Roman Emperor.  But claiming this man who was condemned and crucified by them had more divine authority than they did was considered blasphemy and sedition.  Offenses that got you dead.  But despite the danger and the persecution, the followers of Jesus insisted on their astonishing story.

That’s why we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus 20 centuries later.

There is something compellingly, dangerously, and mysteriously unique about him.  If you dare to take him seriously, your own personal history can end up being marked by who you were before Christ, and who you become in the years when he is the Lord of your life.

So, Merry Christmas!  Take some time to ask if you’re living a BC or AD life.

(BTW…the Battle of Hastings in which William the Conqueror successfully invaded England was in the year 1066 AD.  You’re welcome.)




October 26, 2017, 3:32 PM

#Me Too


The recent internet campaign that goes by the title #Me Too, has exposed just how widespread sexual abuse harassment is in our society.

It began with revelations that media mogul Harvey Weinstein had used his power to act as a sexual predator for decades without challenge.  A couple of years ago, we were horrified to learn that “America’s Dad” Bill Cosby was apparently a serial rapist who had also gone unchallenged.  There were rumor about both of these men for years, but no one seriously dared to challenge them.  The founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes was exposed to be a serial harasser of women working for him, and so was his biggest star, Bill O’Reilly who unsuccessfully spent tens of millions of dollars trying to keep his activities secret.

John Kennedy is again in the news because of the release of long classified documents concerning his assassination.  What was concealed during his lifetime was his voracious sexual appetite, and the multiple and reckless encounters he had with countless women, including at least one young White House intern.  And, of course we remember another presidential peccadillo (that’s a polite term) with an intern by Bill Clinton, whose campaigns were marked by what his allies labeled as “bimbo eruptions.” (Thus putting the onus on the women, and not the man with power.)

The White House is now occupied by a man who bragged about his multiple acts of adultery, not just on that infamously vulgar “Access Hollywood” tape but in radio interviews when he knew he was being broadcast.  Multiple women have come forward to say they were harassed and assaulted by him, but they are dismissed by his partisans, just as other women were dismissed by Clinton and Cosby’s accusers.

I have counseled with women who have made accusations of horrendous sexual exploitation by members of the clergy. Each time, I launched investigations which led to their removal from the ministry.  I am happy to say that in every case I have brought, the church hierarchy has taken the accusations very seriously and dealt with the victims in a respectful and compassionate manner, and the offenders were removed from the ministry.  But, in each of these cases there were women who attempted suicide because of the effects of what happened to them.  All were deeply traumatized.

For FAR too long, victims of abuse and harassment have been dismissed or made to feel that they were somehow to blame for what was inflicted upon them.  It’s not just about violent sexual assault.  It’s about the notion that men can act like predators or engage in demeaning “locker room” talk and get a pass…while women always have to be on guard, and if they are actually assaulted it means they must have done something to bring it on themselves.

Too often, we have consoled ourselves with the convenient fiction that this kind of behavior is rare and doesn’t happen that much to “good girls.”  But, the #Me Too campaign has show the lie behind that assumption.  This sort of thing is NOT rare, at all.

Maybe most men don’t commit these acts, but as we have seen, even a few can victimize scores of women and girls (and boys and men).  And, there are men (and women) who know it is going on and don’t say anything for fear of being dismissed and ostracized themselves.

The Bible has numerous examples of women being sexually used.  Even the father of the Judeo-Christian faith, Abraham, made use of a slave girl who really had no choice in the matter, by impregnating her in order to gain an heir.  When his wife became jealous of the woman, she ordered Abraham to cast her and her son out into the desert…which was potentially a death sentence.  He did. 

Folks, that is flat out abuse. 

Of course, there was David who engaged in an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, who may or may not have tried to seduce him.  He may have simply wanted her, and he was king, so he got her.  The account is unclear of this point.  But he committed mass murder to try to cover up his sin.

There is an exception though… Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well when he is travelling through her country, and speaks with her.  The meeting is exceptional for several reasons.  Samaritans and Jews loathed and avoided each other.  Unmarried rabbis normally avoided personal contact with women, even if they were Jewish.  This was especially true if the woman was considered to be of “ill-repute” because of a colorful sexual history.

He notes that the woman has been married five times and is currently living with a guy who is not her husband.  The common assumption is that she is a slut.  But that is not necessarily the case, at all.

I know a pastor who is about to enter into her fourth marriage.  The first ended in divorce when she left an abusive and unfaithful spouse.  The second marriage lasted several years and then her husband suddenly died.  Her third husband was in fragile health, and died less than a year after they married.  Now she is about to marry another man.  She is NOT a loose woman.

The Samaritan woman may have been widowed or abandoned by her first husband.  Either way, in that culture she was seen as “used or damaged” goods.  Men of stature would avoid marrying her, and the guys who would take her might not have been good guys.  Since it was easy for a man to dump his wife (but not the other way around) other husbands may have left her after using her.  And each time it happened she became less attractive to good husband material.  But a single woman had no social security or standing, so she would have to marry whomever would take her.  Finally, she has to settle for a guy who won’t marry her.

On the day she met Jesus, she had to go to the well for water in the heat of the noon sun, because that was the only time she could go and not be subject to the contempt of “decent people” who looked down on her.

But then came Jesus, who knew her history and still treated her like a person of worth and dignity.  She was astonished, and grateful.  That he would make this “fallen women” his messenger in that community was downright shocking.  It was his way of saying, “I accept this woman whom you do not.  I do not blame her for her situation.  And even if she has made some grievous mistakes with men, she is still a person of worth.”

Especially for that time, it was a stunning rejection of judgmental taboos.  But, too often we have concealed or ignored that fact by simply painting the woman as a sinful slut, rather than a victim of a sexist culture.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s time for another reform.  It’s time to repent of the way our culture has victimized and demeaned women simply seeing them as sexual appliances and then dismissing their fears and objections to such treatment.  It’s time for men to grow up and realize that women are our EQUAL partners and not junior partner in humanity.

Jesus treated the woman of his time with surprising respect.  Not the condescension of a man looking out for the “little ladies” but an acknowledgement of their full humanity.  There are other examples, but this article is already going long.  If you want to know more about them, please feel free to contact me.

The church has too often reflected the culture and treated women as inferiors.  But, if you get to know Jesus, you will discover someone who is still ahead of the curve.  It’s time we caught up.

When it comes to showing the love Jesus did, we need more people to declare, "Me Too."




August 30, 2017, 12:00 AM

The Eclipse, Jim Bakker, UMCOR, and Grace in the Storm


The recent eclipse was perhaps the most widely photographed and observed celestial phenomenon in human history.  Our area gained international attention because of the longevity of totality, and because we are literally at the crossroads for two total eclipses  The second one will be April 8, 2024.  We are able to predict when it will happen with exacting accuracy.

Both eclipses could have been predicted with the same accuracy 10,000 years ago, if we had known the math then.  It was going to happen no matter what might be transpiring on earth.  The same is true for the next eclipse and every one after it.  It’s like the changing of the seasons, or the phases of the moon.  More rare, and pretty spectacular, but not some kind of unique miracle…just nature being nature.

Even so, we heard some Christian celebrities claim that this event was a warning/judgment from God.  Among these sages was none other than Jim Bakker, who gained infamy for his financial and sexual scandals in the Nineties.  In what is a testament to the gullibility of a portion of the American public, he is back on TV.  Now he sells freeze dried survivalist food and other “end of the world” supplies while hawking a “gospel” filled with fear of the future.

Between sales pitches, Bakker stated, ““God came to me in a dream and said I should tell the world that I am plunging the world into darkness to remind people I’m still mad at the Obama years.  Obama legalized witchcraft, sexual deviants getting married and schools started teaching transgenderism.”

He also seems to think Donald Trump is God’s Anointed Leader, even though someone with a lot of time on their hands checked out the counties where the sun went totally dark, and discovered that the majority of them went for Trump in the election.  Using Bakker’s “logic” wouldn't that mean the Lord plunged them into darkness as a punishment/warning?

Or maybe, it was just nature being nature and not making a political statement, one way of the other.  (I vote for that)

And now, we have Hurricane Harvey which has unloaded over 27,000,000,000,000 gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana, causing catastrophic flooding and misery in states that never voted for Obama.  Bakker…and Bakker’s “God”…have been strangely silent about what he would surely claim was divine retribution if it had fallen on California or New York. 

UPDATE:  Hurricane Irma, the most violent storm in decades, is about to devastate Florida, another Bible Belt state that went for Trump.  And again, Bakker has declared this storm an expression of God's wrath.

Let’s look at what Jesus says… (God) causes his sun to shine on evil people and good people. He sends rain on those who do right and those who don’t. (Matthew 5: 45)

I’m reminded of the time Pat Robertson claimed that the deadly earthquake in Haiti was a disaster caused by a deal the Haitians’ made with the Devil in order to gain their independence from the French.  Aside from being lousy theology, it was lousy history.  They never made any such deal.

Jesus didn’t go  into the life histories or theologies of the people whom he cured.  He simply stepped-up and dealt with their need and graciously eased their suffering.

We’re seeing all sorts of inspiring stories of people coming to the rescue and aid of the beleaguered people of Texas.  Mattress Mack, the mattress store owner who has provided beds and food in his stores for hundreds of refugees…The Cajun Navy, made up of scores of private boaters who have trolled the flooded neighborhoods of Houston, looking for stranded people…The churches, synagogues, and mosques that have opened their doors to shelter, feed, and comfort the displaced…Individuals ranging from wealthy, high-powered celebrities, to just “average” people who have already raised millions for the relief and rebuilding effort.

The stories of grace and courage are where you are to find God…not in inane and self-righteous claims of divine judgment on people you happen to dislike.

I am proud that the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is considered one of the foremost disaster relief organizations in the world.  I have personally worked with the in the aftermath of flooding, hurricanes, a tornado, and even a nuclear disaster (Chernobyl).  I have seen their integrity, efficiency, and ability.

They are not only among to first into a disaster scene, they are among the last out…and that is particularly important.  A catastrophe like the one unfolding in Texas will take years to fully repair.  UMCOR will be there, for years.

A friend of mine once participated in a joint UMCOR/Habitat project in Florida, a year or more  after Hurricane Andrew.  At one point, he was delegated to get lunch supplies and went to a 711 that had reopened nearby to get them.  As he plopped supplies to prepare lunch for a dozen or more people the clerk commented that he must be cooking for something special.

My friend explained that he was with a church group from West Virginia, working on building a house.  The clerk smiled and said, “You must be a Methodist. Because only the Methodists are still here.”

THAT, Mr. Bakker, is the work of God by the people of God.  Not testy judgments and selling crappy, freeze dried snacks for Aramgeddon.  It has nothing to do with who is or isn’t president.  It has everything to do with grace and courage in the face of nature which brings rain and sun without favor, as Jesus himself pointed out.

And I recommend for your support, the heroic and capable United Methodist Committee on Relief.  Every cent you donate will go directly toward the Hurricane Harvey relief effort.  The low administrative costs of the organization are already covered.  Thanks to unselfish professionals and a lot of caring volunteers, UMCOR does the job with effectiveness and efficiency.  And their only question to the stricken will be, “How can we help you?”  Believers and non-believers, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, people of every creed and color will receive help in the name of Jesus Christ.  Because that’s how he did it.

For people seeking grace in the storm, Jesus is present in people who show his love in practical, powerful, and courageous ways.  UMCOR is doing that, and I invite you to support them by going to their website and making a donation.  You will make a difference.

 

 




July 17, 2017, 2:39 PM

Check out our Vacation Bible School!


We invite all children between the ages of 4-12 to learn about God’s love for them and all Creation!
 
Friday, July 21 5:30-8 Part One starts with a free dinner for the entire family
 
Saturday, July 22 10:00-12:00 This session  concludes with lunch for the entire family.
 
Friday, July 28 5:30-8 Part Two starts with  a free dinner for the entire family.
 
Saturday, July 22 10:00-12:00 Final session.
 
Join in the learning, play, and fun, as we  grow in Christ and care for Creation!

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