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 morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.
Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays. Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room. As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.
As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do. Now the day had come and we had to—wait. Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.
- The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say. Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
- There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it. Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation. They all pass through. All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
- People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
- Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much. Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you. All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.” It was truly humbling. Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away. Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
- It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
- Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal. Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
- Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time. “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked. “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.) It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
- You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently. “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…” That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day. I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew. “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
- There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
- There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere. People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
- Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
- 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.
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 Read the rest of this entry
Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us. I said, toward the end, these words:
“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”
They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:
I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this: “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”
And this one from G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.
Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
A reflection offered on Friday after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas. By Dr. Gary Furr.
Haven’t we had enough of rage and death? Hasn’t enough blood been shed to convince us that this is a way that leads down into a Pit from which there is no return, no hope, and no end? Is there no capacity for mutual respect left among us for our neighbor, friend, and even the stranger on the street?
Isn’t common humanity, created by God, sufficient for respect? What have we not taught and lived for our children that our streets and systems well up with innocent blood? Is there no way back from the edge on which we balance perilously?
Is the stupidity and uselessness of killing not sufficiently clear to us as the worst way for a society to maintain itself? That we need more than fear and threat to abide together in peace? Is it not obvious that when we must sleep with a weapon under the bed, or in the car or on our hip to feel safe that we have lost our way?
When we see others as enemy rather than “my neighbor” and “the officer who is my friend” and “the man at our school everyone loves” isn’t it clear that something terrible has happened to us? When we rage on social media and retweet and link and forward but do nothing to change the situation that we have done nothing and maybe made things worse?
Don’t we know that “liking” a rant doesn’t repair broken relationships? Isn’t it time to see that nothing has really happened when we speak out, but that real change is something we do before it’s too late? Haven’t we had enough choosing of sides, blaming and finger pointing that lead to nothing?
Should we consider that nothing improves until each person in a free society accepts their responsibility for the mess? Is it possible that lawmakers and police and leaders and those in authority need the community as much as the community needs them?
Is there a way past the helpless resignation, blind rage and frustration to the better question, “so what should we do?” Isn’t it in times when courage and involvement seem the most useless that they matter the most?
Just because I can’t fix everything, am I excused from doing something to help? If I believe in prayer, really believe in it, should I not pray for my nation now more than ever, and listen for the answer God speaks?
Is it time to stop simply deploring our racial divide and meet neighbors and make friends, and go past our fears of others? Is there someone in my circle to whom I can reach out and know better and say, “I know we want better than this. Can we pray for one another?” Can I give to bury the dead, support the children left behind, work for a more just world, weep for the fallen and believe that it is not a waste of my time or the world’s?
Do I believe, as a Christian, that the Jesus way really works? That endless forgiveness is more powerful than endless revenge? That the gospel is good news for all?
O Lord, my mind is so haunted with these questions today. I am so concerned for shedding of blood and the disrespect for life that is before my eyes. Help us, Lord, please. We need You. We need one another. And we need a wave of remorse, repentance, and renewal. These my questions I lay before You. Only You can help us answer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
We pray today for these victims and their families— not gay or straight, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew or Muslim or none of the above, but as You see them–beloved sons, daughters, friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and most of all, fellow Americans.
As a minister, writer, and songwriter, I am always vexed when events of great magnitude happen. What words are adequate for such a moment? The shootings in Orlando, done by a single darkened soul under the sound and fury of evil ideology left us once again speechless. Except, everywhere, we started talking, typing, blaming, searching for answers. Many offered easy ones, mostly the same ones, and few people seem to change their minds. “If only everyone would….”
But the children, sisters, brothers and friends are still dead. I have searched my own soul, and pondered, “What more can I do?” There have been, according to a report I heard 133 mass shootings in the US (four or more murdered) in this year. Terror, violence, hatred, fear, loathing of people we don’t know or understand.
I see a dearth of storytelling power, almost an absence in our current public life. We have become a culture of three word slogans, name-calling, distortion and manipulation.
This summer, I decided to preach a series of sermons in dialogue with children’s books. I heard another pastor last year at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga tell about the joy of doing such a series, and I wrote a note then that I wanted to try it.
I will have a Pastor’s time with the children in every service, and we will read from a children’s book. I will post top lists of books for children on our church website for parents, including a list from the New York Public Library list of the most read Read the rest of this entry
Civic prayers are perilous, and yet unless we would make the exercise completely a matter of private preference, we venture with trembling now and then out into the public square. As a Baptist I am squeamish about these places, sensitive to the realities of those gathered, but also to the potential to trivialize prayer (“so we can get started”). Still, there is something about the heady moment of freedom to act in public, understood or not, to call out to that which is deepest within and among us. I write prayers because there is nothing particularly more virtuous about an unthought about prayer that makes it superior. If anything, our “spontaneous” prayers can be crippled by the habits of mind that tend to bring the same structures and words about without careful reflection. A good editor doesn’t diminish words but strengthens them. I always try to think carefully about what I say about God, representing God, and to God that it be the best I have in that moment. I offered this prayer at the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce, before busy people who all needed to be somewhere next pretty soon.
O what a tangled web we weave when we try to voice what we believe!
We affirm that you are in control—and that it is all up to us.
In our political life, we talk as though our nation is falling to pieces
And it is also the greatest nation on earth and that nothing can stop us.
In our personal lives, we call out in the helplessness of crisis,
And then remember the scripture that says that through you we can do all things.
No wonder it sometimes looks odd to those who watch us without joining us.
We welcome a stellar series of speakers to lead us during the season of Lent at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church this year as we study “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Each week on Tuesday at noon, we will have a different guest teacher leading us in Bible study on the traditional deadly sins and talk to us about the power of the gospel to help us as we struggle against them in our lives. Last Wednesday evening, I led off with a presentation on gluttony (following a Baptist Wednesday night dinner and as part of the Ash Wednesday Communion!).
This week we continue with Dr. Ron DelBene. Ron is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, writer, and gifted speaker. He has been a major influence in my own spiritual life and I look forward to his words of wisdom about greed. A light meal follows after and the public is welcome to attend with us. Hope tto see y0u there!
2600 Vestavia Drive
Birmingham, Alabama 35216