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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.

 

 

 

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

A Prayer for the Victims of the Orlando Shooting

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 child160612082538-08-orlando-shooting-0612-large-1691ren, 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.

Read the rest of this entry

Faith Amid Many Faiths

Religion is in the news every day, and sometimes the way politicians and news reporters talk about it

Other Faiths

shows an enormous ignorance.  Religious faith as the media and politicians talk about it sometimes bears little resemblance to the daily lives of billions of faithful people across the world. We live not only next to Muslims, but Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and many others.  Sometimes this diversity is seen as a threat.  But how do we respond?

Most Christians are not hateful or uncaring to their neighbors. But in these fear-driven times, some truth is a welcome friend.  In this study, we will learn a little more about two “neighbors” with whom we share similar ancestry through Abraham—Islam and Judaism—and how Baptists can draw from their heritage to find a way to a more thoughtful and faithful interaction with others.

First, we are affected powerfully by what I have come to call “un-socializing media.”  The web has made powerful and wonderful goods to be available to the planet.  Unfortunately, it also provides terrible temptations and problems.  I’m not simply talking about terrorists and pornographers being able to spread their poison, though that is bad enough.  But the damage of half-truths, uncritical forwarding and the anonymity of the internet enables people to “express” things better left to the 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

Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

Count me as one of those people who usually “gets it” with multi-layered, highly symbolic and open-ended books and movies.  I liked songs in the Seventies that ended on a minor not-home chord to depict “ambiguity.  And I was dazzled by Terrance Malik;s glorious “The Tree of Life” link and consider his talents profound.

Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko

His latest movie, “To the Wonder” therefore hit me in multiple ways.  I was frustrated in many places—mostly by the fact that most of the dialogue takes place inside the heads of the main characters.  Olga Kurylenko is Marina, a divorced woman who meets and falls in love with Ben Affleck, an American, while he is traveling in Paris.  Neil (Affleck) commits to her and invites her and her 10 year old daughter to live with him 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.

kthompson_PKDHAZ6R

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

Love and Sorrow Mingled Down in Newtown: A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.

Friday morning, I got up early.  I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off.  I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.

Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Christian calendar

Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece.  Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves.  I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen.  The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song.  What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?

A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood.  I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product.  And here is what I wrote:

“Greg:  I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar.  The mood suggested a title for the piece:  “Weeping in Ramah”   CLICK TO LISTEN   from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents  What do you think?

 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

 Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home.  Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours.  I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired.  The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.

I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition.  Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable. Read the rest of this entry

Lessons in Politics from a Baptist Preacher

I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now.  Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess.  I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.

Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around.  They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote.  Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of

We are one in the spirit

diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion.  We have to run for election every year.  It’s called “the budget.”  A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long.  Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.

So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before.  He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?”  And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”

A little unsolicited advice:

  1. You have to learn how to build consensus.  Winning 51-49 is not winning.  You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
  2. You will learn humility willingly or eventually.  Willingly is much less painful.
  3. Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one:  “Learn to tell a story.  Keep it simple.  Tell the truth.  Truth doesn’t need help.”
  4. The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end.  They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
  5. It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement.  Even if you and your mother think so.  God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
  6. Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
  7. You have to trust others to make real changes.  Nobody does it by themselves.
  8. Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
  9. Forgive and move on.  It’s just that simple.  Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
  10. Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall.  There are worse things than losing your job.
  11. Believe in Someone or Something larger than you.  Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
  12. It’s not your church.  It’s not their church.  It’s God’s church.  Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
  13. If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it.  It’s not rocket science.
  14. Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
  15. A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
  16. Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular.  Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
  17. No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
  18. Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
  19. Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.  Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
  20. As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
  21. Love really is the great truth of life.  Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.

A Mother Is a Miracle

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born,

and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born, and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.  We are among the weakest of all creatures when you think how long it takes us to live on our own.  We have to have nurture and protection long after being  (spoiler alert) hatched/delivered.  Each mom devotes nine months to getting us safely here, nine months  of her life, bodily resources, and emotional stability.   They eat for us, drink for us, and carry us.

My mother, holding brother Greg and me by the hand, 1957

When we arrive we become the center of their life energy for years to come and a source of worry and anxiety for our happiness until the day they die or lose their faculties for good.  There are bad mothers, mean mothers, damaged goods mothers and mentally ill mothers, but the adjectives merely beg the case.  “Mother” without a descriptor automatically assumes what we know—that God endowed nature to give us one who would delight forever in our mere being and be there for us in our stumbles.  They are the first and most lasting transmitters of human culture and spiritual values.

There are those whose loss of motherhood before it began will be their deepest source of sadness and loss.  Today is a hard, hard day for them, for there is in their heart and mind the longing that has left such crushing disappointment.  So the task of life is to redirect this most powerful and radiant energy to other acts of love—toward nephews and nieces, neighbors and orphans, teaching and doting upon the children of the world.  The world needs mothering.  It doesn’t have to be one on one.

I have been born once on this earth and was fortunate to have a mother who always wanted the best for her children, celebrated our victories and took our side with utter and unrelenting bias in every conflict.  Today in America many whose mothers have died will shed a tear and smile more than once to remember someone who was forever their home base when “it” came to get them.  When Mom passed away, the shelter over their head was gone forever and they took her place.

Join me in gratitude for mothers, each and every one, those who birthed and raised us, those who helped fill the void by loving us if a mother didn’t or couldn’t.  Mothering is pure grace.  A good mother loved you from the first stirrings inside.  She recognized you the moment your eyes met.  And if, per chance, your mother did no more than give you life, celebrate that and look around.  If you’re still standing, some Mother Life somehow got to you—by a Mom who chose you, a family member who took care of you, a teacher or a neighbor who took you under wing and helped.

To the women in our lives whose obsession is to take care of all of us and teach us how to take care of ourselves and each other, thank you.