Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
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.
Jaroslav Pelikan’s marvelous book Jesus Through the Centuries takes a sojourn through the vast and complex history of the interpretations of Jesus. Among the chapters is one entitled, “Christ Crucified,” in which he notes the disproportionate focus on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the gospel accounts. By even the most “generous” reading, he notes, we have at most information about less than a hundred days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, but of the last few days we have an hour by hour account.
Says Pelikan, “What was said of the thane of Cawdor in MacBeth was true pre-eminently of Jesus: ‘Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving of it.’” It is clear that the gospel writers intend for us to focus our attention here, to the foot of the cross and the edge of the empty tomb. These are the founding images of the Christian faith, called the “Passion” of Jesus Christ.
Surprisingly little is said of the actual method of crucifixion. The most agonizing details of the death itself have been multiplied by morbid preaching, but the gospels pass over those details in near silence. They do not seem to be interested particularly in the pounding of the nails or biology of asphyxiation. The fact of his crucifixion seems enough.
We do, however, have seven short sayings and attributed to Jesus as he died on the cross. They have fascinated preachers through the centuries. Why, of all things he might have said, did he say these in his final hours? And if there was more, why were these the sayings remembered by the gospel writers? We will not know the answers to those questions on this side of heaven, but we can still listen in fascination.
After all, who can resist overhearing the last words of any dying person? Every child at a bedside strains to hear a word of love, reconciliation, summing up, or release from a dying parent. These words say some significant things to us if we have ears to hear them. They seem random at first, but have resonated in the Christian tradition:
John 19:26-27-“Son, behold your mother…”
John 19:28-29-“I thirst”
Luke 23:32-38-“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Mt. 27:45-54-“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
Luke 23:39-43-“Today, You Shall Be with Me in Paradise”
Luke 23:44-46-“Into Thy Hands I commit my Spirit”
John 19:28-30-“It is Finished!”
While many of the words are about lofty things—surrender to God, eternal hope, abandonment, forgiveness, there are two that are very poignant for their simple earthiness and pathos. “I thirst” is a cry of a suffering human being. And “Son, behold thy mother,” was Jesus speaking to John, we assume (the disciple Jesus loved, John humbly refers to himself). He was asking him to care for his mother. As a last act on his earthly life, he turned to maternal love and the anxiety of leaving her. We assume Joseph perhaps has already died and she is now losing a son. John says that from that day on, the disciple took her into his own home.
Now I’ve been thinking about that again as the pain of George Floyd’s death has returned to us through a trial. And beyond the infamous words of not being able to breathe, it was the cry for his mother that undoes me. For all the anger, pain and sorrow of what happened last year, at the core of every bit of human brokenness is love and sorrow. In the anguish of an ordinary moment on a city street gone bad, something in me feels sadness above all else. All the pain in the world ends up as the separations from one another—life lost, families broken, neighbor love replaced by anger and distrust, and all that wells up.
No, “Son, behold thy mother” is not housekeeping. It is every bit as deep and profound as all the theologically lofty words that followed. Perhaps in this moment, too, it is this simple recognition of one another’s profound and vulnerable humanity, a child and mother, that has been lost in this virtual world of ours, only revealed in those moments of terrible unjust suffering. Don’t hurry past it. Take it in. It’s the only way back.
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?”
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 are. 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
NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?
Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval. He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?” He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith. If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person. I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Continue reading Forgiveness: Enough Already!?