Life After Elections

Friends, I have voted. It is a precious opportunity we never miss. And tomorrow, I want you all to know that I will STILL be your neighbor and fellow countryman. I will still do all in my might for good.

Vickie and I watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Finding Your Roots” recently. In 2021 he did a show for singer and music producer Pharrell Williams. As he discovered the pain of his slavery past he was emotionally overwhelmed.

Then he said something that knocked me over. “I love America. I just want America to love me back.” That was a powerful insight. We are a country that has been filled with glorious and terrible truths. But we keep stumbling along.

That comment touched me. I want, I wish, I hope, I pray…that we can “love each other back.” That might be a way through. We have so much to be grateful for, so much possibility, such prosperity. But it will lie unrealized unless we love each other back.

See you tomorrow. Come what may.

Waiting to vote, 7 am

Stay Connected

Every Mother’s Day for the last dozen years of my ministry as a pastor, we’d combine Mother’s Day with Graduate Recognition. This is because our college students ended earlier than high school students and if we wanted to see them all before they went to Cancun or their senior trip, we’d better get it done.

So, oddly, we celebrated Mother’s Day (which is lauded above Father’s Day). For all of my childhood, I figured Mother’s Day was in the Bible and we often got a sermon on the woman described in Proverbs 31. This was the only time we heard a sermon on this text unless a woman over 75 died, in which case they had asked that it be read to describe them as a virtuous and industrious woman, whether their family had recognized it or not. By Mary and Martha, those unappreciative kin were going to hear it on her way out.

Graduate Recognition is a time when a church, well, marks the end of one phase of mothering, so to speak. As I told one son-in-law when they announced their marriage, “Son, I’ve done all I can do. She’s all yours.”

Now they move to the next phase, which in this most odd time is less clear. Will the moving be metaphorical (Online college? A virtual backpacking trip to Europe? A job, perchance?)? or will it be literal (huge carloads of stuff to cram into some undersized cubbyhole of a dorm room)?

Whatever comes next, the American Dream of parents is what I called in a sermon the “threefold test of maturity.”  You are:

  1. Out of the house.
  2. Out of school.
  3. Out of our money.

My daughter Erin said, grinning, “Two out of three isn’t so bad, Dad.”

          But this “getting out on your own” has really flown into the Twilight Zone over the past year, and it isn’t over yet. I remember at the end of my freshman year of college packing up a Mustang Grande with my entire dormroom and driving to Denver, Colorado alone at age 18. No cell phone, no credit card, just a “gas card” and cash. That world actually existed.

          Yet I WAS going “home.” My favorite definition of “maturity” isn’t that one above. It is this, given my by a counselor, and I have not been able to trace the author:  “Maturity is to accept oneself and one’s origins as non-negotiable.” You won’t achieve that after high school graduation or even college, and certainly not in your twenties. You are likely to spend decades figuring out what the heck that means.

          Let me just say that what you discover isn’t far from what the poets tell us, that there is something permanent and real right here in us, with us, next to us, in the people we’ve been given, but we cannot know that right away. Wendell Berry said it so beautifully in his short poem:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

                                                          (Wendell Berry, “The Real Work.”)

So out you go, but the prayer of a parent is you will find your way back home. If you have to stay a while until you get it back together or if you have to, as John Denver once sang of the Prodigal Son, make your “way back home again over many a rugged mile,” you will discover the way. And it will be familiar and deep. What you loathed and couldn’t wait to escape or the great treasure you seek isn’t out there anywhere. It is within.

          This past year has had plenty that was terrible and depressing. But it has called forth from us something by necessity—to connect where we can with other humans. Loneliness and distance have caused us to dwell in the Far Country even as we didn’t leave home for months and months. And an ache for the people who mattered most and on whom we counted grew deep until we thought perhaps we might not take them for granted ever again.

          On this Mother’s Day, just after my wife and I returned home from the embraces of grandchildren from whom we’d been separated for over a year, as we survived an invisible virus and the stupidity of our fears toward one another, something eternal has endured. And the stream that is bouncing off the stones is singing. Listen.

          Blessings on you all. Stay connected to the people you love.

Church Penalties

In a sermon, I once suggested that harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically.  Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person.  All or nothing thinking—and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit–makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life. This is not to say that there are no absolute truths–merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.

My friend D.r. Travis Collins is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.” Here are some possible penalties. Continue reading Church Penalties

Grace in An Ungrace World

Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.

His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular.  This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.  The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.  Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.

Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.  Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.

It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)

I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”

I wonder.

 

 

 

In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon

This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!

NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip.  On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas.  They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE

STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!

They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed.  They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up.  Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people star-trek-the-experience-castare.  Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such.  Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.

So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?”  And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”

I sympathize.  I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here.  It’s such a strange concept.  Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.”  The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Continue reading In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon