Blog Archives

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.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving, Squanto and Hope

How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims?  They came to America to find freedom, we remember.  Religious freedom.  They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church.  They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide.  As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”

First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom.  Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden.  All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well.  They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.

So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World.  They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back.  Only the Mayflower made it.

During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.”  The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.

There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route.  They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November.  Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry

Take the BOTH AND Pledge

“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things

about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,

I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”

After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.

A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all Be coolriled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat.  Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.

And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Read the rest of this entry

Forgiveness: Enough Already!?

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. Read the rest of this entry

Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection

I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:


The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves.  They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of

Brussels Subway system attacked

their action except death and blood.

They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.

Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Read the rest of this entry

Saved by Faith, Hope and Love

For many years, I have pursued various ways of feeding mind, heart and soul early in the day, mostly to keep myself out of the very large ditches that erode the shoulders where I tend to drive.  This summer, free at last of a ton of outside pulls, I am undertaking a small daily discipline of a prayerful reflection on a quote, thought or scripture.  They’ll be short, and to be good to myself, I’ll do it every day unless I don’t, in which case, you’re on your own 🙂

It can be found at facebook, but thought I’d let my friends here know, and I’ll be back to the blog now, also.  My writing soul is starving from “doing.”    The daily quotes can be found on facebook.  Click HERE

Today’s reflection to kick it off is from Reinhold Niebuhr, about faith hope and love.  Thanks.

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Saved by Faith, Hope and Love

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. 
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we Niebuhrmust be saved by faith. 

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” 
― Reinhold NiebuhrThe Irony of American History

I first heard this wonderful quotation from my friend Fisher Humphreys, Read the rest of this entry

Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama

Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become

Rev. Arthur Price

Rev. Arthur Price

friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other.  Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together.  He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together.  The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.

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Rev. Keith Thompson

Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South.  It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.   (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)

One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches.  We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years.  Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that.  We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.

After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened.  Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Cynicism and Forgiveness

“Forgiveness” is my wife’s favorite song on my new CD.  (Click HERE to listen to the song)  The chorus goes:

It’s impossible to give forgiveness

It’s even worse to have to ask

If letting go is the answer

Living like it’s gone is the task.

How else you going to deal with the past?

Lance Armstrong and General Petraeus in one year are maybe more than we can take, even in our jaded time.  I find myself turning it all off more and more just to preserve my soul.  Cynicism can cripple the spirit.  It can rest on the

How else you gonna deal with the past?

belief that everything is a con, everybody is out to get you, all politicians are evil, and all human beings’ motives are bad.  While Christians might be seen to have a lot in common with that, what with the fall of humanity and all, I’m here to say, “Not really.”

The Christian gospel is not as much about how bad we are as that God knows it and loves us anyway.  Sin is not what lives on at the end of the day.  Its moment is the middle of a Friday with a dark sky and a rugged cross and a man yelling, “It is finished.”  But the last word is an empty tomb, followed by a hopeful church, a Holy Spirit, and a kingdom to come.

So as Thanksgiving approaches, it might do well for us to think about how to defeat it in our lives.  I want to offer two helpful practices from our faith that can be an antidote to cynicism. Read the rest of this entry

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures.  You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry.  You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film.  When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence.  I was embarrassed.  So we’ve made some progress, I guess.  As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry