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June 23, 2015, 8:47 PM

Flags Fall and Grace Abounds

   The Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans..."Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more." (Rom. 5:20)

   In the wake of the atrocity in South Carolina in which a young man poisoned by racism, massacred nine people in a prayer meeting, simply because they were black, something amazing has happened.

   His stated intention had been to ignite a race war.  In pictures posted on the internet, he posed burning the American flag and waving the battle  flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which has been erroneously identified as the flag of the Confederacy.  He apparently hoped the white folks would rally around that banner and join him in his "crusade."

   Instead, what has happened in the wake of his despicable act of mass murder has been precisely and spectacularly the opposite.

   The Confederate battle flag, which has flown at the South Carolina state capitol since 1962, appears about to be taken down and consigned to a museum.

   Let's be clear, it was put there, not out of some reverence for brave soldiers who fought a losing battle for state's rights.  It was put there as an act of defiance against the growing Civil Rights Movement which was gaining traction in 1962.  It was intended to be a statement in support of institutionalized racism in the form of segregation.

   In short, the flag was an expression of official racism.  And, it was an inspiration to that young racist who desecrated a church with lethal gunfire.

   He assumed that its continued presence on the grounds of the state capitol meant that there were kindred spirits who would rise to support his bigotry.  It didn't lead him to murder, but its presence was an encouragement to his deluded notion that he would find support for his barbaric attack.

   Now, the governor of the state and legislators from both parties are saying it's time to be rid of this banner which was flown in support of a system of slavery and racism.  Redemption is not to be found in clinging to a discredited past, but to a hopeful future.

   The campaign to be rid of this fossil of the past is spreading rapidly.  Mississippi, once the bulwark of segregation and institutionalized racism, is also considering removing the "Star and Bars" from its state flag.  Virginia looks ready to take it off their license plates.  Amazon, E-Bay, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and other retailers are barring merchandise sporting the Confederate flag motif.

   Not what the shooter all.

   But wait!  There's more!

   Instead of fomenting a race war, this heinous act has brought people together in surprising ways.  For instance, conservative pundit Glenn Beck's website, has featured an article praising Van Jones, a liberal pundit and former member of the Obama Administration, for Jones' article on the way that the white population of Charleston had rallied in support of the grieving black population.  To say the least, Beck has not been in the habit of praising Jones...or vice versa.  But, they have come together on this matter.

   The man who sought to sow further discord and  racial conflict has seen his gunfire backfire in spectacular ways.  “This racial purist was trying to unloose a tide of hatred, to start a civil war.  But in fact he seems to have touched off a tidal wave of love and reconciliation such that even Glenn Beck and I are on the same page,"  said Jones in an article in the Huffington Post.

   What happened when that deluded racist opened fire in Emmanuel AME Church was most certainly a heinous sin.  What has happened in the wake of that monstrous act, has begun to help heal wounds that go back centuries.  Grace has abounded.

   Perhaps, this response will so shock the killer, that he will be forced to reappraise his worldview.  One can only hope it will lead to his redemption, as well.  I am sure he was more than a little surprised by the forgiveness which was offered to him by the loved ones of people he wantonly gunned down.

   He almost repented before committing his monstrous crime.  He was surprised by the warmth of the welcome a white stranger got to a prayer meeting in a black church.  It made his victims seem more...human.  Now, he has seem them be clearly more noble and gracious than he is.  I suspect, he is utterly mystified how people whom he has caused to suffer so terribly could offer him grace.  It must seem crazy, or at least foolish.

   "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

    The message of the Gospel is that grace transforms suffering and redeems even terrible injustice.  Cynics may pooh-pooh this.  But, look at what's happening.  The same grace which transformed what was once a symbol of terror, torture and tyranny into the our faith's central symbol of hope, love, and redemption, is still at work in the world.

   And the old banners and hatreds still fall before it.

   Grace abounds.

April 28, 2015, 12:00 AM

Your Tax Dollars at Work?

The renowned astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently posted that we "lose" $71 billion in tax revenue (most of that would be property tax revenue) from the tax exemptions churches receive.  He then noted that the World Food Programme has stated that it would take $3 billion to feed every hungry child in the world, and that with the remaining money, we could provide universal health care in America.

He ended his post with a rather snarky, "Or we could just go to church and pray to God to end disease and hunger."

Dr, Tyson has often expressed his frustration with religious folks who espouse beliefs that evolution is a myth and that the universe was created by God in just six days (or maybe a few thousand years, depending on their interpretation of the relevant Scriptures).  I share his frustration with those folks.  I have no problem with evolution or the idea that the universe is about 14billion years old.  Neither does the Pope, for that matter.

I genuinely like Dr. Tyson and I think he is often a tremendously effective science educator.  I can understand his frustration and I know how easily such feelings bleed over into a general contempt for religious beliefs and institutions.

But, let's look at the evidence.  It's the scientific thing to do...

Actually, those folks who pray to God have built and supported hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals and clinics around the world.  Many of them are in otherwise unserved areas of profound poverty. Countless thousands would have no medical care without the efforts of churches. Our Conference largely underwrote the building of  Ganta hospital in Liberia which serves an area that had no such facilities, before it came.   We have provided millions of dollars for Imagine No Malaria, a program which has helped to dramatically reduce deaths due to this disease. I suppose you could call that reduction an "answered prayer."

As for feeding the hungry...He might want to check to see how many food pantries are supported and hosted by churches.  That's the case in our community.  The last church I served was the single largest and most consistent supporter of the community food pantry at the local women's shelter.  The Heifer Project, and several other international ministries supported by churches help to promote agricultural development around the world.

We support children's homes like Chaddock School, a world-renowned facility for troubled children, and a second children's home in Mt. Vernon.  In addition, we support the Baby Fold, which provides a school for special needs children as well as adoption services.  The United Methodist Womern formed and help to fund the Cunningham Home in Urbana, which also provides housing, education and counseling for hundreds of troubled children.

Another program we support is the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, which provides a wide-range of ministries and programs to help at-risk kids.  (This program recently learned that state grants which it has received for some of its programs have been drastically cut, due to the epic mismanagement of the Illinois state budget.  More on this, later...)

Our Conference has founded and helps to support four excellent retirement facilities that provide care and dignity for the elderly,  thought their work has also been hindered by the state's financial woes.

Within our Conference, there are three institutions of higher learning (McKendree College, MacMurray College, and Illinois Wesleyan University) which were founded by the United Methodist Church.  Overseas, we have been a major supporter of Africa University which has provided quality education for thousands of Africans who would not be able to go to college, otherwise.

The United Methodist Committe on Relief(UMCOR) has helped thousands of families rebuild their homes and lives after floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes...I know, because I have been part of such efforts across the U.S.  With their help, I have also brought medical and humanitarian aid to hospitals and orphanages overseas, which our government never aided.

The rebuilding of Haiti has been largely driven by NGOs and churches because governments only work with the Haitian government, which is still a hot mess of inefficiency and corruption.   My previous church helped send volunteers and building materials to build five homes in that impoverished land.  In Nepal, the government is being accused of gross incompetence and of directing foreign disaster relief to people who are connected to the government and the ruling elites, while leaving the poor (which is most Nepalis) in the lurch. 

As for aiding the homeless here...Well, I have participated in a number of Habitat projects.  Habitat for Humanity is a Christian  organization which has provided about 300,000 families with decent, affordable housing, and it will not accept a dime from any governmental agency.  I have also helped to repair storm damaged homes across the country working with Habitat and UMCOR. 

While working to repair homes in Joplin, MO after it devastating tornado, we met a women who worked with the Salvation Army (yet another church) to coordinate mission teams from across the nation,  She said that in the year after the storm, 120,000 volunteers...the overwhelming majority of whom were praying church folks...donated millions of volunteer hours to help the community rebuild.  How much tax money would a similar effort have cost, I wonder?  By the way, we were housed in a church there which had provided it's hospitality to about 2,000 volunteers over that time, while charging virtually nothing for the use of their facilities...after another church had sent mission teams to help repair the damage they had sustained in the storm.

Our church provides space for the  Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Narcotics Anonymous, and a Share Grief Support group.  These groups pay little or nothing for our space, and it helps them serve others.  And, we are frequently the venue for community fundraising efforts to help people in crisis.  Because our overhead is low (we don't have to pay property taxes) we don't have to take a cut out of the income from those events.  It all goes to the people in need.

I'm betting that Dr. Tyson doesn't frequent many churches and is largely ignorant of all this. 

Now, the reality is that the church has not, and cannot fix every problem.  Government has a role to play, and sometimes it does a better job.    But that is certainly NOT always the case.

Given the spectacular mismanagement of the Illinois government...would you really trust it to do that great a job with those extra tax revenues?   Might want to look at what they did with the funds they gleaned from the lottery, which was supposed to fix our problems, forty years ago.

Frankly, neither church nor state are perfect tools.  My preference is that the church and private organizations do as much as they can (and I would argue they could certainly do more and work together better).  But, government also has a legitimate role in "promoting the general welfare" and that includes helping the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.  I just do not trust it with the whole task.

While I respect Tyson in many ways, his claim is rather naive.  Does he really think governments wouldn't squander the money to finance misbegotten wars or give tax breaks to plutocrats?  The Pentagon just announced that it cannot account for $45 billion it spent in Afghanistan that probably ended up in the pockets of local warlords, black marketeers, drug kingpins, and even the Taliban. 

His critique is also rather smug. My church has sent me on missions across the earth to help people in desperate need. I wonder how many times he has personally invested time and effort in doing so...or does he just leave that to government functionaries?

Governments have their role, but there's no denying they can be inefficient, sometimes corrupt,  and have poor priorities.  Church-related institutions in this state, like retirement homes, hospitals, and schools for troubled children,  which count on state funds to help them operate are certainly finding the state a less than reliable partner

And yes, we do pray for the people to whom we reach out.  It's one of the ways we become aware of them and remember them, and affirm their value.  We also attach our hands and feet to those prayers.  A fact of which Dr. Tyson seems almost willfully unaware.  We don't see prayer as a replacement for action...we see it as a prelude and a theme for our action.  It's not a zero-sum game.

I would submit that such prayers are a lot more effective than just complaining about what you see as the failings of other people.  That's a bit like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable who offers a self-congratulatory prayer to God, saying he is "not like other people" whom he considers sinners.  Jesus denounces that prayer as self-righteous delusion.

But, you don't have to be a praying person, to be self-righteous, or a tad delusional.

March 23, 2015, 2:49 PM

Correct Tense

There have been countless arguments over whether or not Jesus literally rose from the dead.

Skeptics have pointed out that even the biblical claims are inconsistent.  None of the gospel accounts entirely agrees with any of the others.  I invite you to read them.  They don't.  However, if differing accounts automatically disproves the Resurrection, then it should also disprove the Kennedy assassination.  How many differing accounts and theories are there concerning that event?

"Yes," counter the skeptics, "But we know JFK is dead, because we have it on film, and we have the body." There are some far-out conspiracy theorists who claim that it was a JFK look alike who took the bullets in Dallas.

If  the presence of a corpse is proof of Kennedy's death, what do we take from the absence of one in Jesus' Resurrection?  Skeptics  and  opponents of that time could have pointed to his occupied grave as proof he was dead.  There is no evidence they did so.

The truth is that these arguments will not likely convince anyone one way or another.  Frankly, it wouldn't matter if Jesus rose and emerged from the tomb  in front of a cheering crowd of thousands, if that didn't change our lives.

The only meaningful  evidence that  Jesus lives, is found in the lives of those who profess to follow him.

Many years ago, I upset a woman in a church I was serving by saying, "If they found the body of Jesus tomorrow, I would still be a follower of Jesus the day after tomorrow."  She thought I was somehow denying the Resurrection.  I wasn't.  I was affirming my devotion to Jesus.

She then gave me a book into which she had taped a 3x5 card with what she called "Proof of the Resurrection."  They were various Scripture passages.  The reality is that those passages didn't provide "proof."  They did provide evidence, but that's different. None of them would convince a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.  And in the end, even if we had absolute proof, with which no one could argue,  it wouldn't matter, if people's lives weren't transformed because of Jesus.

There is no denying that Jesus is a uniquely powerful character in history, but I cannot think of a single individual who met such a catastrophic end...denounced by the crowds and the religious and political establishments and abandoned by his closest friends...and then went on to have anything remotely approaching the impact on the world that Jesus has had.  Not even close.

The proclamation of Easter is not, "Jesus rose."  It is, "Christ IS risen"  Present tense.  He lives here and now.  He lives because people find true life in him and have their own lives transformed, as a result.  He lives when we practice and share the astonishing love which he embodied, for which he lived and died.  If we live in ways that reflect his teaching and example, then he lives.

As the old hymn declares...

You ask me how I know he lives?

He lives within my heart!

If he doesn't live in our hearts, then it doesn't matter that he lives...or lived.

Does he make a real difference in your life?  Does your life make a difference in the world, because of him?

The Resurrection isn't a matter of past tense.  We must repeat the miracle, by giving Jesus life in our time, in our lives.  Be a part of the ongoing miracle!  Let the Risen Christ transform you, and transform the world through you.

You are the only proof of the Resurrection that matters.

March 10, 2015, 3:00 PM

The Word Made Flesh

  I have a friend for whom I would like you to pray.  She is going through a difficult time, battling clinical depression.

   She does not live near here, so my only means of contact are the internet and phone.

   Recently, she was hospitalized twice for her depression.  It took an enormous amount of courage for her to willingly go into a psychiatric unit.  She has had what she would admit was a deep and irrational fear of hospitals.  A previous stay, several years ago, in a psych unit in another community had not done anything to ease her anxiety.  She has described what certainly seems to have been a very poorly run place which did nothing to help her.

   Fortunately, her recent experiences were much better.

   But, there was one thing lacking...pastoral care.

   She is a Christian and active in her rather large Episcopal church.  She likes the Episcopal emphasis on liturgy, and takes comfort in receiving the Sacrament of Communion as a tangible reminder of God's presence and grace.  She asked, more than once, for  the church to send a priest (there is more than one on staff) to visit her on the psych unit, and to bring her Communion.

   She received no response to her pleas and no one visited.

   So, I served as her priest.  Each night, just before she went to bed, she would  call me, and we would go through the Communion litany.  She didn't have any wine or grape juice or bread.  Occasionally, she had some peanut butter crackers and water, which served as the elements.

   By the standards of her church, it wasn't  a terribly "orthodox" Communion, but she noted that it felt more real, using water and peanut butter crackers, with us connected only by a long distance phone line, than it did when she was in her church with all the proper elements and pomp and panoply of a High Church Communion.

   That's because it reminded her of Jesus' loving presence in a place and time in which she felt afraid and alone.  Jesus was never big on ceremony.  He believed in worship and attended synagogue.  But, he didn't place a lot of importance on formality.  He WAS big on compassion.

   When Jesus violated ritual purity rules and pious propriety by eating with sinners, he responded to his critics by quoting the prophet Hosea... Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: 'I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.' For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners."

  I would submit that he would say the same about people who feel alone, afraid, and hopeless.

  When my friend was released from the hospital, she contacted the senior priest, expressing her desire for more pastoral care.  He responded that he preferred to limit their contacts to the phone and e-mails.

   She is deeply hurt by this.  And I am frankly baffled and appalled.

   She is not asking him to cure her illness, or offer psychiatric treatment.  She is asking for him to pray with her and offer the Sacraments for her comfort and strength.  She is asking for some human contact and compassion with a face on it.

   People like to describe the Bible as the "Word of God."

   That's actually incorrect.

   We can describe the Bible as words from and about God.  But, the Bible itself says the Word of God is something else.

   Actually, it is someONE else.

   "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..." declares the Gospel of John.  The Word is not a book, or a letter.  It is a person.  When God wanted to communicate most profoundly, intimately and powerfully, God came in the flesh and blood of Jesus.

   Following the example of Jesus calls us to step into the messiness of other people's lives, and not just stand at a safe distance and tell people in pain that we're praying for them.  The word "compassion" literally means "to suffer with" someone.  That is difficult, that is demanding, it is sometimes even dangerous.

   When my friend was struggling with feelings of guilt, that often accompany depression, she asked for the ritual of absolution...which is a liturgy of prayers seeking and offering God's forgiveness and grace.  It can be a powerful thing to have someone pray with you and to utter words of forgiveness which you have difficulty expressing yourself.  A depressed person can no more pull forgiveness out of themselves, than they can just summon joy on their own.  They need help.  They need someone who is willing to plunge into the darkness after them, and help pull them into the light.

   But, her priest responded by telling her there was a book with the prayers she wanted, and that was all.  No offer to come and share in those prayers, or to bring absolution and the solace of a caring soul. Words, instead of the Word.  Paper in place of flesh.

   Jesus once told a story about a man who was mugged and left for dead.  A lawyer, and then a priest passed him by.  They were both busy.  Actually, if the priest had tried to help the bloody man, he would have been rendered ritually impure if any had wiped off on him.  Apparently, he felt it was more important for him to fulfill his ritual duties than to sully himself with the bodily fluids of a suffering stranger.  Those duties focused on performing the ritual sacrifices that were the center of Temple life in Jerusalem.

   "I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices," said the prophet.

   Jesus went on to make a Samaritan the hero of the story. despite the fact that Jews despised Samaritans as heretics.  Even his Jewish audience had to admit that he had behaved more compassionately than the priest.

   It's not easy to suffer with and for others.  But that is what Jesus did.  It is what he called his disciples to do.

   And if the suffering scares you (and it scares any reasonable person) just remember this.  It is in those moments that you also meet the One who is the Word.  And having him in your life, and passing through you into the lives of others, is a blessing that is worth the price.

   Because he will be there for you, in your dark places and broken times.

   This is the Good News.

December 27, 2014, 3:00 PM

Grace, Gratitude and a Coffee Maker

I want to thank all the folks who responded so generously to our "Christmas Commando" challenge to provide gifts to residents of the shelter for homeless  veterans in Marion.  (The picture shows me with items, as we prepared to deliver them.)

With the help of these kind souls, we were able to purchase and deliver a full-size Keurig machine (don't worry, it's the smaller ones which were recalled) as well as hundreds of "k-cups" of coffee, tea, cocoa and cider mixes, and  several sizable boxes filled with useful personal hygiene items.

There may have been some present elsewhere in the small building, but we didn't see and gifts, or decorations.  It looked like Christmas was going to be just another day for these men who have known hardship and disappointment since coming home from faraway wars.

Many of them feel forgotten and abandoned.  Many struggle with a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness.

Coffee and toothpaste will not fix all that.

But, they are signs of a deeper love and concern.  I've already had people say we need to do more for these men and women and I think we have a chance at a vital new ministry in this regard.  It's something we will need to discuss, think and pray about in the coming year.

The Christmas story, when it is liberated from all the tinsel, commercialism, and sentimentalism with which we have tried to bury it, is about a God who daringly and dangerously plunges into the depths of the human experience and shares it with the down-and-out, the dispossessed, and even the despised of the world.  It tells of a God who would take on the plain brown wrapper form of a peasant child whose legitimacy was subject to question, and who grew up to be a dirt-under-the-fingernails manual laborer until he abandoned that life of comparative security to become a homeless rabbi.

People expected a military messiah to wipe out their enemies, and a prince to wield power and enforce his righteous will upon his subjects...and maybe even the world.

Instead, they got a peasant preacher who refused to go to war and who was spectacularly powerless, when it came to political or financial resources.  All he has is a fearless compassion for the people that polite and pious society has rejected.  The people they were certain that God rejected, as well.

He simply wasn't the Messiah they were expecting.  He rewrote the rules on that.  Because, for all his seeming powerlessness, he would prove to be astonishingly powerful.  You could even say, miraculously powerful.

He upended the world, and offered a new way of living and loving.  The way of  humility and selflessness.  The way of  grace and mercy.  The way which lifted up the downtrodden and healed the broken.  The way which welcome the rejected.

The people in that shelter saw a glimpse of him on Christmas morning, when they were surprised by unexpected gifts that told them they were neither worthless nor forgotten.  And they were grateful.

Salvation doesn't start so much with fear as it does, gratitude.  That's why grace and gratitude have the same Latin root.

On Christmas Day, this church extended some of that grace to the kind of people for whom Jesus came into the world.  And, in so doing, we affirmed that great proclamation of the season...Emmanuel!  God is with us!


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