LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
Faith and Vaccines
This week I remembered a conversation I had with a woman many years ago. I had gone to teach a series on the family at a friend’s church in another state. She came up to me after the presentation and asked to talk with me. Of course, I said.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“Well, I feel like such a failure in my faith. I suffer from depression. It was affecting my marriage, my children, and most of all, my faith in God.”
“Why did you feel it made you a failure?” I inquired.
“I’ve tried everything. I prayed and prayed for God to take it away, but it didn’t leave. Finally I went to a psychiatrist and he put me on medication.”
“Did it help?”
“Oh, I started feeling better soon.”
“Are you still on it?”
“So why is that a problem, spiritually?”
“Well, it makes me feel like a failure, like I don’t have enough faith to overcome this on my own.”
“Ah, I see. Well, let’s consider this another way. First, when the book of James encourages those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil, anointing might be considered ancient medical treatment. In other words, pray and see the doctor. Then, let’s consider Jesus’ healing example. His healings were instantaneous. Nevertheless, I would never consider it to contradict the natural order, not if God created that order. Sometimes I tell people that doctors now do routinely and every day what Jesus did instantaneously and miraculously to their way of thinking.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“And then, think of this. The Apostle Paul had the same problem with something he called ‘his thorn in the flesh.” Was it depression? Vision issues? Epilepsy? Scholars don’t really know. And he prayed and prayed but God only said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ He believed, but he was left with trust. Not every question ends with an instant answer. He had to keep holding onto his faith. But the failure to solve it did not mean he had no faith in God. He was humbled by it.”
“Now, let me leave you with one more thought about this. Who created this world?”
“God, of course”
“And who is Lord over that world?”
“So who is responsible in this creation for the beauty of a creation where the body can heal itself through knowledge, insight, medicine and care? You see my point. Medicine, including anti-depressants, are not a substitute for faith. They are a gift of God. Think of taking your pill as a daily reminder, a humbling one, of the grace of God. Grace is the truth that we cannot save ourselves, heal ourselves, solve every problem or make it alone. Grace acts before we do. So think about your medicine as a daily act of faith, not a failure of faith. Your faith is not the problem. It’s a theology, a belief, that isn’t large enough for the truth. Open it up, and see God’s hand of care. You like your psychiatrist?”
“Oh, he’s wonderful. Talking to him helps me so much.”
“Then I would suggest you rejoice. God has answered your prayers. Take your medicine and thank God for it. If we could conjure up a miracle every time we needed one, we’d have replaced God I think. God has given us thinkers and researchers and people who give money and authorize systems of healing, all kinds of wonderful gifts. Or as folk theology sometimes puts it, we are His hands and feet in the world. This applies to science and medicine as much as anything else.”
And to paraphrase the gospels, “she went on her way rejoicing.”
I think if I know someone who is struggling with whether to take the vaccine or not, especially as an issue of faith, I’d have the same kind of conversation. I wouldn’t ridicule them for believing inadequately in magical religion any more than I would make fun of my granddaughters for believing childish ideas of God and the universe. What is the point of that? Besides, after all these years and education I’m still haunted by a magical idea or two myself.
I would try to help them think about their faith in a more mature way. I would try to understand which of the many anxieties was at the root of their fear. I would gently listen and offer some antidotes to bad religion with the real thing. And I would never stop caring for them.
I hope that’s what I would do. They are struggling with all the bad actors and shallow theology out there confusing the issue. The truth is this: this is God’s world as people of faith understand it. We are not simply waiting for the End, whatever that will be. Life is God’s gift, and medicine is one of God’s many blessings sent to us all in the lives of those who live it as a calling. Listen, learn. Pray about it if you need to, but be sure you pray in openness to the idea that what might need healing is not just the problem but a faith that needs to grow up some more.
That’s what I might do. How about you?
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
I confess, I have now been part of a ukelele flash mob, back when mobbing was not a public health crisis. But enough of that.
Every year, the curmudgeons, musicians all, who inhabit the couch and chairs at Fretted Instruments of Homewood, contribute tracks for a Christmas CD that is given away. This is one I did a few years ago–ukelele, mandolin, dobro and guitar played by yours truly. Oh, and banjo, just for good measure. Merry Christmas!
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was penned by Edmund Sears. Sears was a divinity graduate of Harvard and became a Unitarian pastor who “preached the divinity of Christ” according to Dr. Michael Hawn, a church musician and scholar of hymnody. By age 37 poor health forced Sears to give up pastoral work and he spent the rest of his career in publishing and writing.
According to Dr. Hawn,
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:
“But with the woes of sin and strifeMichael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.’”
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”
Thinking of this hymn in this way makes us hear the final two verses very differently. In the third verse we know in present versions, humanity, bent low under the crushing loads of our insanity and wars, do not yet know the hope that God sent forth in Jesus. They (we) are exhausted and nearly hopeless. Hear the words repeating through that verse: toil, climbing, painful steps, weary. The world is a heavy place. The angelic singing comes as a musical respite, notes of hope in the night.
Early Bethlehem was not much better. I wrote about this in another song on my last CD, “Down in Bethlehem.” There is a realism about the human condition in the gospels that we do not pay much attention to in the prosperous West, at least not until lately. The multiple burdens of the year 2020 and a world in pandemic lead us back to this hymn in a new way, don’t you think? Now, we too yearn for the fulfillment of that birth,
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.
Now it becomes a prayer, a troubled thought in the night. We are not the first people in history to toss and turn in the night.
The Heart of Billy Graham
In the late 1920s. my mother told me, my grandfather, her daddy, Henry Price took his oldest daughter, Katherine, to the hospital. The doctor said that she had diphtheria and if he didn’t take her to the hospital she would die. Having no health insurance, Grandpa had to sell every chicken, cow and piece of equipment he had, as well as his his land and his house to pay the hospital bill.
With few other options, he moved his young family down to Charlotte and got a job with a local dairy farmer delivering milk. He would go out to the farm every day and pick up his deliveries and do his route.
Their daughter survived, and when she was 6 she would go with him and knew the farmer’s son, who was about 12 years old. She said he would pick on her. She would later say, “He was mean to me sometimes.” But that boy went to a revival and was converted to faith in Christ, and she would have never guessed that the farmer’s son was Billy Graham, would go on to preach to 215 million people in the world and whose body lies in state in the Capitol as I write.
Most of us around Concord and Charlotte watched his rise to fame and came to love and respect his preaching Ministry. My mother says that when I was a baby, she and dad went out to the Charlotte airport to pick up someone for his work, and there came Billy and a couple of his fellow ministers, walking up the terminal hallway. My dad walked over with me in his arms, and according to family lore, Billy rubbed my head and pronounced me a cute child. I did not notice at the time.
My grandmother sent him money all of her years to support the work that he did to tell others about Jesus Christ. As he grew older zeal gave way to wisdom and Continue reading The Heart of Billy Graham
Parables as Mind Openers
Dr. Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, calls the parables of Jesus “open-ended stories” in his brilliant book, Jesus and the Victory of God. They are also stories of the coming Kingdom. In these teachings, he argues, Jesus does four things—he issues an invitation, a word of welcome, words of challenge, and words of decision and calling
Last week, during my Wednesday morning Bible study, I told about two kinds of thinking that we do about things that matter. One is convergent thinking—we move toward narrowin
g down to a solution, a focus, to eliminate the options and get to the core issue. It looks like this:
But there is also divergent thinking.It begins from a point, and drives us out into more and more possibilities. It “opens up” something else, like a brainstorm (even though a lot of brainstorm exercises are often more like a drizzle!). Instead of narrowing down, it widens our thoughts, deepens, and inspiration belongs here. It looks like this:
Both kinds of thinking are necessary for life. The parables brilliantly seem to do both—push us out into the kingdom, great thoughts, “opening up” as well as back to decision—“what must I do now that I have thought about this?” Over the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday communion tomorrow evening, we will look at and listen to Jesus speaking to us and teaching us—pushing our boundaries, but also calling us to new fixed points and hard decisions to be disciples. In the Tuesday luncheons and the Sunday worship all the way to Easter, Jesus will tell us, as my late friend John Claypool described them, “stories Jesus still tells us.” Come gather round together, as the family tells the stories of Jesus, and as he invites us to new places in our lives.
One of the delightful gifts to Vickie and me in recent years is a little collection of hymn texts from our own Dr. Milburn Price based on the parables of Jesus. The idea was inspired when he wrote a hymn text for my 15th anniversary at the church (ten years ago!). What resulted was a lovely little book called Lord, May Our Hearts Be Fertile Ground: Singing a Response to the Parables. We will be actually singing some of these hymns Dr. Price wrote in our morning worship and at the luncheons. Copies will be available if you want one, and they will help to connect us to the stories as our thinking comes back from “opening up” to “making commitment” each week. It should be a time of reflection and joy!
Wed Feb 14 Ash Wednesday “To Pray and Not Give Up” Luke 18:1-8
Sun Feb 18 “Sowing and Reaping” Matthew 13:1-8, 13-23
Sun Feb 25 “Kingdom Building” Mark 4:30-34
Sun Mar 4 “Seeing Jesus” Matthew 25:31-46
Sun Mar 11 “Inheriting Eternal Life” Luke 10:25-37
Sun Mar 18 “Who Was the Prodigal?” Luke 15:11-32
Sun Mar 25 Palm Sunday “Leaving the Ninety-Nine” Luke 15:1-7
Sun Apr 1 Easter “The Sign of Jonah” Matthew 12:38-40
I love the parables. I never tire of thinking about them. They challenge me, as stories always do, in a way that statistics and news reports never do. They open the world up, and open me up. There are about sixty parables of Jesus in all. They are still vital all these years later.