Monday, December 7, 2020

Blue Christmas Bus

I took a ride on the Blue Christmas Bus this past Sunday. This is closely related to the Struggle Bus if you are wondering, but specifically about feeling down during the holiday season. It started before I even left the house with news that a church member had succumbed to complications from the corona-virus. Then I soon found myself standing in empty children’s Sunday School classrooms missing the donut-fueled sugar rush excitement. Not long after that, I was in a sparsely filled sanctuary for another worship service with people I would like to hug but cannot. I was especially feeling the burden of responsibility to my “flock” as I want to keep them safe while also offering them the comfort of gathering together while socially distanced.

After church I drove by the literally boarded up East Towne Mall. I never thought I would miss the massive crowds and hustle and bustle this time of year, but I do. I also saw the ghostly closed Toys R Us where I had purchased many gifts for my children in Christmas’ past. This year we will likely not be able to get together like we want.

In the afternoon, my parents along with my sister and I met at the gravesite of my brother who died on this date 43 years before. We kept our distance from one another on an occasion that begged for embracing. After a tearful prayer, we then exchanged Christmas presents since we have decided it would be wisest not to have our annual Bonus Christmas get-together as I like to call it.

On my way home, I drove by my childhood home in East Knoxville while listening to Karen Carpenter. Her beautiful, yet haunting voice was perfect for my frame of mind. This was the last home we lived in before my brother got sick. As my father once said, it was our last “safe place” before leukemia upended our lives.

At one point I told my wife that I had been feeling “hunched” all day long. Somehow she knew what I meant without my fully putting it into words. She remarked that it was unusual for me to even say anything because I usually just silently wallow in my misery until I emerge on the other side of it.

Here is the point where I suppose I should tell you how my faith got me through. Or that prayer uplifted me when I was feeling down. The truth is I concluded my evening with hot cereal and chocolate milk and my favorite Christmas movie: Die Hard. I made fists with my toes and felt a little better. I am sorry if you wanted a more pat answer, but why perpetuate a false notion of Jesus as some kind of genie to always make us feel better whenever we wish? I will say I do still have a pervading assurance this will pass and I know that Jesus is the source of that hope. I know I will get off this bus, but I may pass several stops before I do. 

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Redemption Business

Earlier today, anchor Alan Williams of local TV station WVLT invited me to participate in a little project they have been doing during quarantine. Local pastors are taping short video segments of encouragement that air at different times. The goal was 30 seconds but the best I could do was keep it under a minute. Below is my original text of which I only used about a third for the final product. I'll post the video link below as well. 

When bad things happen, it is in our human nature to think of it as a punishment. A tragedy occurs and we wonder what we did to deserve it. Many people think of God as one who just doles out judgement so it is expected that there will be those who believe this current pandemic is in response to our sinfulness in some way. While nothing is beyond God’s power, I do not believe COVID-19 is some kind of divine retribution.

My father who is a retired pastor often says, “God is in the redemption business.” That is exactly how I choose to approach this unsettling turn of events; not with thoughts of retribution but of redemption. God can take anything in our lives and redeem it. Our mistakes. Horrible things that happen in our lives. Even things others may do to us.

In the Lord’s hands, pain can receive comfort. Ugliness can be remolded into something beautiful. The bitter can be redeemed for the better. This is certainly possible for a God who can create anything and everything from nothing.

One of my favorite songs called Trading My Sorrows quotes Psalm 30: “Though sorrow may last for the night, His joy comes with the morning.” This current crisis is obviously not going to be over in a night, but it will be over. Our faith gives us a vision beyond all that is happening right now.

God is in the redemption business. That is what Easter is all about. We hated not being able to gather together in our churches for that celebration this year but it did not keep us from remembering that it was about Jesus’ victory over death. The greatest redemption of all time that offers us redemption as well.

That same psalm also includes the following encouraging words I want to leave you with:
“Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me.
You Lord brought me up from the realm of the dead, 
you spared me from going down to the pit.
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people, praise his holy name.

May the God of redemption bless you all.

Here is the link to the video: 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Do Not Be Afraid

With the flip of a switch, I can see.
The light dispels the darkness.
Darkness is not just a symbol or a metaphor.
There is great reality of darkness in our world.
Just as true as anytime in history, our world is shadowed by the darkness of war, poverty, violence, hunger, greed, prejudice.
There is darkness everywhere children are abused or neglected or hungry or taught to hate or fear or despair.
There is darkness in nursing homes and on the streets where people feel abandoned and worthless.
There is darkness as we are living under the dark clouds of health and economic fears unlike anything I have seen before in my lifetime.
But here is the good news: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

It seemed quite dark as the women headed to the tomb of Jesus.
Not just because the sun had not risen, but because of all they had witnessed.
This Jesus had seemed like a source of great hope, a light in the darkness of Roman oppression.
            He showed them a new way of love and faith.
He showed them the Truth of God.
            Now it seemed as though the Romans won after all.
Darkness covered the land in the middle of the day as Jesus hung on one of their cursed crosses.
How they had wept as the stone was rolled in place, sealing Jesus in the dark grave.
Now suddenly, a dazzling bright angel appears to them and the first words he speaks are, “Do not be afraid.”
            They are told Jesus lives.
Go and tell the others.
            The light was not overcome.
There is no need to fear.
Even when all seems lost.
Weeping may last for a night, but rejoicing comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

I invite you to follow this link to a 30 second video of a sunrise from my house earlier this week. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Love Connection

I have thought about this sermon a few times in the last weeks. Here are some excerpts from a message I brought years ago that may speak to us in our relative isolation today:

Can you imagine a grown man crying hysterically about losing his volleyball?
            Incredible? Silly? Not if you saw the film Cast Away. (Spoiler alert)
Something else incredible is the people who watched the Tom Hanks movie and cried along with him when he lost Wilson.
            They understood.
                        They connected with what he felt.
The sole survivor of a FedEx plane crash over the Pacific, he washes ashore along with other debris.
Among the items is a volleyball, brand Wilson.
As he attempts to rub wood together to start a fire, Hanks’ character badly cuts his hand and in frustration picks up this volleyball and hurls it.
He later notices that his bloody handprint looks like a face and so he finishes the impression with his blood.
Thus, this volleyball becomes his companion, his conversation partner…even someone to argue with.

       We all have a basic drive to connect.
To connect with others…to belong.
It goes beyond just not wanting to be alone.
It is to be a part of something greater.
We are hopefully blessed to be part of families.
We are also able to choose others to connect with.
Especially close people perhaps become mates.
Some are blessed with best friends.
Others are more blessed to have a tight circle of friends or co-workers or organization, such as say … a church.

            Have you ever felt that electric connection in a crowd?
I felt that electric current recently at a basketball game during the National Anthem.
I looked around at all the people and knew we didn’t share the same opinion about everything and we sure didn’t all look the same, but there we were with our hands on our hearts, one nation under God.

            That electric atmosphere is a very real phenomenon.
Large numbers of people come together not as an unruly mob, but as an entity greater than itself … cheering, praising or singing the words to the same song.
            It can give you goose bumps.
Performers often say they have done particularly well because of the connection with the audience.
            It is like a circuit is completed.
Concert means: unity, harmony, accord, agreement.

You may remember a mine accident that happened in 2002 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
Nine miners were trapped for over 3 days when their shaft flooded with icy cold water.
After several failed rescue attempts, the governor told the media that a little help from the Almighty might be needed.
The day after they were pulled from the ground, the public found out about a vow the miners had made.
The decided to “live or die together” and had tied themselves to one another with rope so if they drowned they would all be found.
It kept individuals from floating away from the group and helped huddle them to keep them warm in the freezing water.
Their connection helped them survive.

That need to connect is God given.
God made us to be in relationship.
            In relationship with Him and one another.
It is part of our very make-up.

When you say the word, “connect” these days, for most people it now means getting online on the Internet.
       Did you know that in 1992, there were only 50 web pages?
Part of the reason for the explosive growth was how scientific minds across the globe got connected and worked together to create something greater than any them could have imagined.

(A common refrain during this COVID-19 crisis is "We are in this together." I hope that when this passes, we will never take our togetherness for granted and focus on the things that unite rather than divide us.)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Tempting God

By my ciphering, we are in our fourth week of relative isolation. As I lay in bed last night, I found myself reflecting on the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. It occurred to me he was much more alone than I have been this entire time. He also did not have nearly the comforts and resources I am surrounded with. As aggravating as this situation is, it could be far more austere.

For one thing, Jesus went without food as he fasted for forty days. He could have commanded a rock to be turned into a loaf of bread, but he felt that was a misuse of his power. As for me, I would have gladly used such power to summon a cheeseburger the other night.

Another temptation Jesus faced was to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate how angels would prevent him from coming to harm. Jesus refused to do this by the reasoning of Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test…” 
Here is the very Son of God whom could have the protection of the heavenly host choosing to not abuse it.

Among the most frustrating things happening with our current group restrictions are the preachers and churches who are flaunting the Federal recommendations in the name of faith. They feel they have some special dispensation because they are believers. Frankly, this is on par with the snake handling crowd who base their theology on the short disputed addendum to Mark. Of course, reports are coming in about how some of these same congregations have unwittingly spread the virus amongst themselves. I guess the snake bit them after all. 

As a “shepherd” I feel a tremendous responsibility for my flock. I told someone the first week of this mess that if only one person got sick from our having corporate worship I would never forgive myself. Yes…I am a person of faith. Yes… I trust this will end and God will see us through all the hardships that accompany it. However, in the meantime, I will not put the Lord my God to the test.

Jesus had two voices speaking to him during his time in the wilderness. One was his father in heaven and the other was Satan, the tempter. Despite who you may find yourself quarantining with these days, you essentially have the same two voices speaking to you. They may come to you in person, online or on TV. 
On the one hand, Satan will whisper to you words of fear, chaos, discord, distrust and selfishness. Why did people hoard items at the expense of others? The devil made them do it of course. 
The other voice comes from God. He speaks of encouragement, faith, compassion, peace, patience, community, hope and love. 
It is up to you who you listen to.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Comfort and Courage

I have shared on different occasions through a variety of media that one of the most formative occurrences of my life was the loss of my younger brother to leukemia when I was 12 years old. My adolescence was shaped by this painful intrusion of death into my immediate family. Years later, I would face my own mortality as I battled cancer myself. Both of these experiences have given me a certain outlook on life I might not have had otherwise.

Not that I do not ever get anxious or upset about circumstances, but I find myself able to achieve some peace by asking myself a question many would find morbid: “If I were on my deathbed right now, would this matter anymore?” Like I said, some would find this a morose approach, but it helps me prioritize things of import over those that will fade. I use this “deathbed philosophy” to calm myself down about things ranging from loss of material items to conflicts with certain people. It’s similar to saying “this too shall pass.”  

As I write this, we are facing an uncertain future and collective anxiety I can only compare to the days immediately following 9/11. The threat of the COVID-19 virus has caused global concern and experts tell us the worst is yet to come. All of this is leading many people who would otherwise shun my deathbed philosophy to seriously consider what really matters in their lives. We may all share some apprehension about basic needs such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, but I expect the greatest concerns are over our loved ones. I do not enjoy being socially distant from my family and friends. My little coping mechanism only goes so far. It gives me perspective, but there are times I need much more.

This coming Sunday, the Common Lectionary leads us to look at one of the most well-known Scriptures we have…Psalm 23. Within it we find the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This may resonate with us strongly over the next few months. The source of our comfort, however, is not shallow bravado but rather the words that follow: “For Thou art with me.”

The Message reads: “Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.” We are not alone. We are given courage by our faith in the very real presence of God to see us through this. This is what gives me a “peace that transcends understanding” (Philippians 4:7) that guards my heart and mind. As we eventually emerge from our self-quarantine and seek normalcy, I hope any priority shifts you may be experiencing now do not fade along with the crisis. May goodness and mercy and love follow you the rest of your days until we dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How Will I Know?

In our current cultural divide, a frequent denunciation that arises is that someone is not really a Christian. This is flung at people from both believers and non-believers. It is usually reflective of whether a person agrees with them on their favorite moral issue ranging from abortion to human sexuality to matters such as immigration or the death penalty. If you are on the wrong side, then the demonization begins. It can also be used if someone questions things a Christian does such as curse, drink, dance or some other supposed “Thou Shalt Not” activity.
On the spiritual hand, no human can rightly judge whether another is truly a Christian. It is a matter between them and the Lord. Even if we could, that is not our place. On the practical hand, someone can claim to be a Christian and can point to their profession of faith, baptism and church membership or attendance. What is it that makes someone truly a Christian, though? Every denomination seems to have its formula for answering that question often to the exclusion of anyone not in their circle.
As a strong adherent and appreciator of the concept of grace, the unmerited love and mercy of God, I believe there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. That said, if someone genuinely has Jesus in their hearts, their life should be different as a result. One of the ways we should be able to reflect on the progress of our faith journey is where we are in the growth of the fruits of the spirit. As we read in fifth chapter of Galatians, those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As with most people, I am better at demonstrating some of these than others. I also find I am better on some days more than others.
Another guide for Christian definition is found in Romans 12. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, these passages are given the heading “Marks of the True Christian.” 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I should paste these words on my bathroom mirror as a reminder as I start each day. Notice there are only a couple of  “Thou Shalt Nots” in these lists and zero doctrines as such. There are no defining positions on social issues.  The saint and the stranger are to be treated with compassion. So how can we tell if someone is a Christian? Well, it’s distilled nicely into a song lyric based on John 13:35, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” 
Life is messy and difficult and there are some people who make it more so. I am especially fond of verse 18 above: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I pray that our unity will one day be restored.