Friday, March 24, 2006


God loved so much he gave his only-begotten Son; we love so little we give not even the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Wandering Aramean...

Pilgrims long remember, I think, what settlers soon forget.

Settlers imagine that good fences make good neighbors, that “their” property is theirs and private. Pilgrims, on the other hand, know that shared hope, a common vision, and the pooling of resources make for real community. If settlers imagine that they are self-sufficient, that their own strength and wisdom have gotten them this far, pilgrims know they must continually rely on each other, and on the daily provision of God, to get them anywhere at all. Rich fools build barns; thankful pilgrims build altars.

I have been thinking since Sunday about such things, and what started it was this: our Church School class was temporarily displaced. Some weeks ago, so that God’s Kids could have a permanent home (we were happy to make the sacrifice!), we moved from the old Wesley class to the Fellowship Hall. But on this past Sunday the UMW had set-up for that delicious lunch (and let us be clear: we were happy about that too! Yum!), and so we were left looking for a place to pray and study. The sanctuary? No. Debs was practicing. The choir room? No, that room would be occupied soon enough. My office? Too small. And so, if you saw about 20 people kind of wandering around in the halls of the building, a bit bewildered, it was we—the Wesley Class.

Not to be too melodramatic or presumptuous, but I think we had—at least let me say I had, if only a little and just for a moment—the slightest inkling of how Palestinians and many homeless others feel. It was good for us—at least let me say it was good for me—in that little way to walk a few little steps in the shoes of refugees.

We finally found a place (the Promised Land!) and, settled in, began talking about our poor lost world and what we might do about it—bringing people to Christ, bringing Christ to the world. It is a big question, of course, with many answers, but I am thinking that one crucial thing we can do for the homeless, broken and warring world is to build a safe place, a healing place, a “home” place where people can find refuge and peace. A place where people can bring their darkness into God’s light—a place where death gives way to life, where confession is practiced, where forgiveness is sure. The kingdom of God is like a bush, Jesus said, where the birds of the air can build nests: the church is like a shelter, a way station, a safe house, a hospital.

I suggested that one of the reasons many churches have trouble bringing people to Christ is that the churches themselves do not look or behave so very different from the rest of world. That to say, many churches are just as fractious, just as territorial, just as prejudiced and privatized as any other group of “settlers”—and very clear as to who the “homefolk” are and who are the strangers. That kind of stratification may be attractive to the gentry, but Jesus built his church on the foundation of fishermen and the feckless, tax collectors and revolutionaries.

I reached back for a phrase I wrote about in this space some months ago, now—and suggested that for our church to grow, to be more of what we want to be and in some ways already see, we need to be “Jesus to each other and Christ for the world.” That definition of church comes from the pen of Robert Benson and would make for a great tee shirt, or mission statement, or program strategy: we will be Jesus to each other—calling, teaching, reminding, rebuking if need be and always forgiving; and we will be Christ for the world—inviting, welcoming, sharing, feeding, baptizing and instructing. Jesus for each other and Christ for the world, and always remembering the lessons we learned when we were “on the road,” when we had no place till we came to this place, relying only on each other and the daily provision of God, building our altars in thanks.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Lenten Meditation on Galatians 5:15

Long ago I heard a summation—a post-mortem, actually—of the Nixon Administration. It came at the end of a lengthy documentary highlighting the rise and fall of the Nixon White House. The last clip on the screen was that famous shot of the disgraced president waving goodbye from the steps of his helicopter. A somber voice-over opined that, in the end, Nixon’s Administration “was characterized by grand vision and petty grievance.”

By “grand vision” the journalist meant that in terms of foreign policy Nixon and his aides could see what the rest of us then couldn’t. They had a global perspective on commerce and security which, though radical in those days, we now take pretty much for granted. The trip to China—a move unparalleled in American and perhaps world politics—helped open wide the doors to that whole side of the world.

But there was also “petty grievance,” by which the journalist suggested that Nixon and his aides viewed domestic policy through a lens of “enemies list” paranoia and “micro-worry.” They “saw” loyal political dissent and idealistic college protest as part of a great and dangerous conspiracy arrayed against them. A basic mistrust of the American people, the media and the democratic process prompted Nixon and his aides to engineer and then cover-up all the various break-ins and dirty tricks.

“Grand vision and petty grievance,” and in the long-run it is not hard to imagine that the pettiness is what we remember best and will. Why? Perhaps because the “grand vision” eventually became mainstream common sense—the way everyone looks at things—and it is hard to remember to give Mr. Nixon the credit he deserves. Conversely, the break-ins and dirty tricks defied all sense then and still do, even as they remain a unique paragraph in modern presidential history: the absolute cause of his abbreviated term in office.

As the voice-over ended the helicopter was disappearing over the trees, ferrying Mr. Nixon into political exile. The picture faded to gray and then to black.

I offer that not as partisan political commentary, but simply to suggest that churches and ministries can be ruined by the same ironic bipolarity suggested by the documentary. We Christians are indeed possessed of a grand vision, see what the unbelieving world can’t but will: all people at peace in the presence of God. Jesus calls us into God’s once and future work of peace-making—we have been entrusted with the “ministry and message of reconciliation,” Paul says, “God making his appeal to the world through us.” And it is our essential domestic unity—our living, growing fellowship of real forgiveness and spiritual friendship (the unity for which Jesus prayed)—which testifies to God’s peaceful plan for all his children. The peace of God begins with us who share the peace of Christ.

How tragic then when that grand vision for the world is betrayed or even destroyed by petty grievance at home. When Christ’s chosen do not choose to forgive one another, or bless one another, trust one another or speak the truth in love… when we compile, as it were, enemies lists or ransack the reputations of our brothers and sisters on account of jealousies and grudges and personal agendas… then we should not be surprised if our work is cut short and our pettiness all anyone can seem to remember as we fade to gray and then to black.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Lent is upon us, a time for spiritual spring cleaning. Today I imposed ashes on the foreheads of some fifty Stanley saints, and there were many other such services in and around these precints today.

I have no way of knowing, exactly, what all of those who were "imoposed" did immediately afterwards--here or anywhere else--but I am guessing that some of the faithful went to the nearest lavatory and washed-off the smudge. They were on their way to work or the Y; they had to go to the store of the school and they did not want to draw attention to themselves or what they had been doing beforehand. Who can blame them? I know from experience, and some of it today's, that going into the gas station, say, or the Hardee's with a black cross on your brow is a sure way to draw stares and smirks.

Those who practice today's discipline should be careful, then--for if it is a bit of cowardice to remove so quickly the sign of the season, it can be pride to wear it too long or to obviously. Or for the wrong reasons.

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." which is not the same thing as if Jesus had said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others at all." Jesus seems to want us to practice our piety, to prove our faith, either by taking up a cross or taking down an idol or speaking a word of testimony when we are called to account for the faith that is in us (see also I Peter 3). No, the point is why we do what we do... as a performance for others, or as a demonstration to God.

Years ago, my dad served a small Baptist congregation in Milton, TN, a town so small even God may not have known where it was. First Sunday night of every month, those gathered had "business meeting" before singing and preaching began. It was a poor congregation, in a poor part of rural Tennessee, but for about four months running one man would stand up in the service, pull the corner of a $100 bill out of his pocket and declare, "I have $100 here that I will give to the church if another person will match it," and then he would sit down, smugly, because no one had taken up the challenge. He was smug before hand, too, confident in his challenge--he surely knew no one else in the church had a C-note. Dad put up with this about as long as he could. One night, before business meeting, he gathered some of the other men in the hall, all of them as sick of this charade as Dad, and they pooled their resources to collect, barely, $100. That night when the fellow stood up and showed his...uh...corner, Dad said, "Done! Seven of us have come up with money to match yours." The man, of course, immediately backed down, said that the challenge was for one other person to match it and therefore he was rescinding the offer.

The man seemed uninterested in reward other than that of having his poor neighbors know he was a bit richer than they. His pledge of support for the church was bogus, a ploy--not for love of God or his work but for love of self, or so it seemed to the rest of us.

John Baillie says that, sometimes at least, our care of others is a refined form of self-care. Jesus says that our acts of piety, if we are not careful, have little to do with the honor we want to do God and everything to do with the honor we want others to do us. Lent could be one of the times when we do that.

I encourage my people to wear their ashes all day, Ash Wednesday. I encourage them to wear a cross necklace--not jewelry--for the days of Lent. To practice their piety, to prove to themselvse and God they can make testimony in an increasingly pagan culture--but to beware lest they are doing it not in order to be saying something about God but to say something about themselves, or to have others say it for them. Lest, in other words, they too quickly receive their reward.