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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!


July 21, 2014, 3:00 PM

The Root Problem on OUR Side of the Border...

One of the major drivers of the current crisis on our border is something which rarely gets mentioned. It is that many of those people from Central America are fleeing societies drenched in murderous violence. That violence is being perpetrated by drug cartels that are so psychopathically savage that they are at least the equals of the most fanatical jihadis. They have caused the highest murder rate in Honduras, and have essentially fought a low-grade civil war in Mexico that has killed tens of thousands.

I've seen reporters tell people who are trying to illegally enter the US, that they will be arrested and deported. They don't care. They will try anyway, because they are desperate to escape their blood soaked homelands and the cartels.  The terrorism they are fleeing is not that different from that which others are fleeing in the Middle East.  The risk of deporatation pales before the risk of slaughter.  They will try, no matter how many Border Patrol officers or National Guard troops, we deploy on the border, unless we start shooting children trying to make the crossing.  That would make us as despicable as the narco-terrorists.

The cartels don't do these things because of an ideology (unless it is the most laissez faire form of capitalism imaginable) or some religious dogma. They do it to become filthy rich, by providing addictive and deadly drugs, for which people of every race and class in this country will shovel mountains of money at them. 

The insatiable American appetite for drugs has wrought misery and murder across the hemisphere. We complain about the Islamic fanatics who fund the barbarism of the Taliban or ISIS...but it's a torrent of US dollars, from American "recreational" dopers and hardcore junkies that funds the terror closest to our country. The consumers of these drugs conveniently overlook the blood that is intermingled with their with...because their personal high is more important to them.  (BTW.  The heroin they buy often comes from poppies grown by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which subsidizes their acts of terror and their attacks on US soldiers.)

The "war on drugs" has been a colossally expensive failure. Because there is a deep spiritual crisis which goes unaddressed, and can't be fixed by law enforcement. People go looking for pharmaceutical joy or escape, because they can find no deeper happiness or purpose for their lives. That emptiness has generated all sorts of crises.
I can understand the frustration and concern of people in the border states who see their social services being overwhelmed by unaccompanied minors from Central America, who have little more than the clothes on their backs when they arrive.  But, I also understand the terror and despair which drives these people from their homelands.  The irony is that they seek safety in the very country where people are subsidizing the drug dealers from their homes, yet many in this country will deride and reject the refugees for trying to escape them!  These people are bing doubly victimized!
Tragedy often contains irony.
Our "War on Drugs" has been an abyssmal failure, largely because it has focused on punishment.  People who get involved with drugs, do so thnking they will somehow be able to escape the consequences.  And, once they are addicted, they fear being punished, so they don't seek help.
I'm not saying we give all druggies a pass.  But jail time isn't working as a deterrent, or a cure.  Instead, we need to focus more on preventation and treatment.
Prevention needs to be about more than just telling people that drugs are bad.  We need to provide a better way of coping and a better source of joy.
Jesus said,  "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."  Sleazebag prosperity preachers on TV pervert that to mean Jesus wants you to have a Lexus.  But it means that he wants us all to have the love we need to live with hope, purpose and strength.  It's a powerful alternative to drugging yourself.
But, the church needs to be about offering that alternative in powerful, transforming ways.  Too often, it has sat on the sidelines and "tsk-tsked" about the situation. 
We need to look at ways to get into the game, and start addressing this profound spiritual problem, which has wrought misery, addiction, terror, and social dislocation across our continent. 

June 9, 2014, 4:00 PM

Spiritual AND Organized

   The Illinois Great Rivers Conference recently announced that it exceeded its goal of raising $2.5 million to support the United Methodist church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign.  The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has poured tens of millions of dollars into this effort, and thousands of members of the church…both native Africans and visiting American volunteers…have put countless hours into it.

  You can find out more here...

   The goal of the campaign has been to end deaths due to malaria in Africa.  The program has already significantly contributed to a dramatic drop in malaria deaths.  Overall, the mortality rate has dropped by 50% across Africa since the effort go underway.  In some countries, the death rate has dropped even further than that.

   The bottom line of all this is that hundreds of thousands of people, most of them children, have had their lives and the health saved by this effort, which was made possible because the church organized itself to do it.

   But, I’m guessing that you didn’t hear that good news broadcast in the secular media.  It’s far more likely you did hear or read about the ghastly discovery of the bones of hundreds of infants and toddlers which were found in the septic take of an abandoned convent in Ireland, where unwed mothers and their children were housed in decades past.

   The horrific discovery of hundreds of children who probably died of poor care is genuinely newsworthy.  Such sickening atrocities should not be covered up or ignored. 

   But, a little perspective is in order…

   It’s common to hear people refer to “organized religion” with an air of disdain, and facial expressions that make them look like they just smelled something really rancid.  They will point to the babies’ bones and other genuine crimes and scandals and insist that this “proves organized religion is a thoroughly corrupt and misbegotten enterprise.

   Many will also proclaim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  Meaning that they don’t bother to congregate with others in icky organized ways that could possibly do anything but stifle and poison their pure spirits.  Besides, if you let too many people into your little circle, someone is bound to suggest that you're wrong about some things.  Who wants that grief?

   I’m sure these spiritual people are revolted and disheartened by dreadful and monstrous  stories, like that of the 800 dead babies, placed in the care of organized religion.  I suspect at least some of them feel a certain moral superiority, because they have no part in the institution which caused, or allowed, this tragedy to take place.

   But, here’s the flipside…

   They also had no part in the epic and highly organized work which has saved hundreds of thousands of babies from death or lifelong disability, due to malaria.  The church did that.  And it could do it, precisely because it is organized to do such things.

   When it fails in that mission…that makes news.  I’m not complaining about that.  Failures, and especially criminal failures, must be exposed and confronted honestly.  Churches shouldn’t whine about such exposures, but should face them, admit to them, and fix them with courageous integrity.  The cover-ups which have attended some of these failures have only compounded the misery of the victims and done nothing to truly help or protect the church.

   But when it succeeds, who notices?  People often seem to shrug and say, “Well, isn’t that what the church is supposed to do?  Why should that be treated as news?”

  Maybe because telling half a truth is little different from telling an untruth.

  Yes, organized religion does some dreadful things that merit exposure and correction.  But right now, millions of people are alive and well, because people who are spiritual and organized came together to do something wonderful and heroic.

   The world should know that.  Because the world needs hope and inspiration.

   Tomorrow, all sorts of “spiritual” and many decidedly non-spiritual people, will render more verdicts and spew more invective against organized religion, claiming it does not and cannot do enough good to justify its existence.  They will point to the bones of hundreds of babies as damning proof of their indictment.

   But, tomorrow, the people of the United Methodist Church will carry on the work of saving millions of people from a deadly disease.  They will support hundreds of schools and colleges fighting ignorance.  They will support homes for battered and abused children, where no bones will ever be found.  They will support homes for the aged.  They will support ministries to the homeless and imprisoned.  They will do all these things, and much more.  Even though the world takes little notice and offers only occasional praise.  Good news is rarely seen as news, at all.

   They will do all these things because that is how they practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who identified with the sick, poor and imprisoned.  And, they will do them for millions…because they are organized to do it.  They couldn't do it otherwise.

April 1, 2014, 5:06 PM

And Now For Something Completely Different...

And now for something completely different…

Some of you may recognize that as the tagline which began each episode of the classic (and decidedly different) British comedy series from the 1970s:  Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

For those of you not familiar with this exercise in oddball British humor, I will direct you to a couple of their classic sketches.

This one literally inspired the use of the word “spam” to mean unwanted, constantly repeated ads on the internet…

This one inspired a t-shirt you may sometimes see me wear, which says, “The Spanish Inquisition, Expected by No One Since 1970”  (That was the year the sketch first aired.)

It strikes me that the words, “And now for something completely different…” make a fitting introduction to the story of the Resurrection.

I know there are cynics and skeptics who will immediately respond that the Resurrection is a joke and a bad one…some kind of fraud or fantasy that a man who was well and truly massacred by the Romans (who knew a thing or two about efficiently massacring folks) was brought back to life.

We live in a world where some people think Elvis is still alive and that the moon landings were faked. But most of us are not so deluded.  So why shouldn’t we believe that Jesus is as dead as anyone else from that era?  It certainly seems a far less preposterous notion than the idea he was raised from the grave.

Besides, even the Gospels don’t agree on what happened.  Not one of their accounts entirely agrees with any of the others.

I would point out that hundreds of people witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and fifty years later, there are still countless versions of what “really happened” that day.  Events that surprise and shock, have a way of rattling the systems of even the calmest souls and the keenest eyes.  Frankly, I would find it more than a little suspicious if all the accounts did exactly agree.  That would come across as a bit too rehearsed.  Reality, and our reporting on reality, tends to be a lot messier.  But, despite the many different perceptions of what happened, the witnesses to the JFK assassination agreed that he was dead, and witnesses to the resurrection agreed Jesus wasn’t.

In the case of Jesus, this was an extraordinarily dangerous claim for them to make.

If they had simply said, “Jesus’ spirit lives!  It’s like he is still alive with us!” there would have been all sorts of people who would have understood that and not been scandalized by it.  We say that about all sorts of beloved and departed figures.

But, saying that Jesus was literally raised from death by God, was a dangerous, and potentially lethal proclamation.  He had been killed by a collusion between the religious and political establishments.  To claim that God had revived him in defiance of their claims to authority and power, was to engage in a profoundly subversive act.  You could be arrested for it.  You could be whipped to within an inch or your life for it.  You could be sent into slavery for it.  You could die for it.

Why not just say it was “as though” he had been raised, when that could spare you danger and death?

But, there were people who insisted that he HAD been raised from death, even at the cost of their lives.

These days, we see some despicable scammers, blingy bishops, and money-grubbing televangelists who pad their bank accounts, claiming that Jeeeeeesus is gonna make you rich, if only you send them your money.  But, back in the day, his followers were poor and among the most oppressed and powerless in their society.  Following him didn’t make them rich (as the world counts wealth) or powerful, and it tended to make them less than popular with the people who were.

But, still, they insisted he had broken death.

People point to him creating an expectation that he would rise, before he was killed, and they claim it generated a sort of group fantasy that he had somehow done so.  They note that the Jews believed in resurrection before Jesus ever showed up, and that helped set that stage for his desolated disciples to engage in a mass delusion, as a way to buffer their grief.

Actually, many Jews did NOT believe in resurrection or any kind of afterlife.  The Sadducees, didn’t.  The Pharisees did, but they did not expect the Messiah to be crucified, or to be raised.  Resurrection was to be a mass event they expected to take place at the end of the world.

Jesus violated all those expectations.  He wasn’t what anyone had expected.

There are other surprising twists in the Easter story which defy expectation and easy explanation.  But hey, I’m not going to give away all my preaching materials here!

Whatever happened, it changed the world in an unexpected way, using the most unlikely characters.

I suspect that when the stone rolled away that impossible morning, the first sound that echoed from the broken grave was…laughter.

And while the Scriptures don’t record what he may have said as he emerged, I can easily image the Risen One saying, maybe with a bit of a giggle, “And now for something completely different!”

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