Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

God is seldom in charge…

God is seldom in charge…

“I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me”

Pinocchio

Of course, God is in charge.  I know God is sovereign, in control of his creation, and his plans will ultimately prevail.

But, I also believe in free will and the freedom God gives us to make our own choices and decisions – either in alignment with his will, or not.  God is NOT a puppet master, controlling our every move.  God let’s us choose, even when our choices are catastrophic.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

The primary question I’ve wrestled with, since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting has been, “How do I reconcile the belief that God seems to work in the lives of some (including myself), but didn’t get involved in the life of anyone who could have averted Nicholas Cruz from his murderous plans?”  Or, more personally, “How can I believe God leads me, if there’s no evidence of God leading the dozens of ‘authorities’ in Nicholas Cruz’s life, who failed to see his brokenness and intent to do harm?” 

The root of the word “question” is “quest” – “a long or arduous search for something.”  Sometimes, we’re content to just lazily pose questions, without bothering to find the answers.  Not me.  Not this time.  My questions have led me on a difficult, arduous quest for answers.  I’ve sought wise counsel from friends and mentors.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve searched Scripture.  I’ve wrestled with my own beliefs.  I’ve read.  I’ve written, you may have noticed, as a way of processing what I’m thinking and feeling.

Today, I stumbled across the best answer I’ve found thus far, in Richard Rohr’s, Job and the Mystery of Suffering“God is very seldom in charge, it seems to me.  Only in the lives of saints, only in people who know themselves and love the Lord and one another is God possibly in charge.  In the rest of us, God is in charge maybe a few moments a day.”

While I still believe God is ultimately in charge, is it possible God only controls the events of this world to the degree we align our wills to his’?  Is it possible, we can only align ourselves, collectively, with God if we are truly seeking to know his’ will, and live accordingly?  Is it possibly God only controls the events of this world to the degree we relinquish control to him?  Is it possible our individual and collective pride, self-determinism, pettiness, busy-ness, and self-interest make us deaf and blind to much of what God wants us to see, hear, and do?

Could it be the Church’s fault?  Is it possible the Church is failing to shape and form disciples who actively and intentionally “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), through listening prayer, through self-surrender, and through sacrificial love and service?

Is it possible God was screaming in the ears of countless guardians, teachers, peers, mentors, investigators, neighbors, and law enforcement that Nickolas Cruz was a lethal bomb about to explode, but no one was listening?  Is it possible God is warning us about the next Nickolas Cruz, but no one is listening now, either?

Why did God allow this to happen?  Why did we allow this to happen!?!

“God is seldom in charge…”  How much more would God be in charge, if we actually wanted him to be?

Remember your baptism?

Remember your baptism?

Do you remember your baptism?  I do.

July 22, 1984 – around 11:00 pm.

I was at church camp, at Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee.  It was the summer between my junior and senior year of High School, and my last year as a camper.

Earlier in the evening, I accepted Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior, and was ready to be baptized.

After a night-time walk through the woods, the entire camp gathered by a mountain stream.  I stepped into the cold water, with a young pastor named Alex.  Alex asked me, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God.  Do you accept him as Lord and Savior?”  As I said “Yes!,” Alex pushed me back into the water, baptizing me in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

I remember a lot of the details of that night.  The cold water.  My friends, standing by the river.  A hundred, or so, flashlights shining on the water.  More than anything, I remember thinking, “This changes everything.”  

I didn’t make the decision to be baptized lightly.  No one pressured me.  It was entirely my decision.  In fact, I had wrestled with the decision for at least a year.  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to be a Christian.  I wanted to live like a Christian.  I wanted to be baptized.  But, before I could, I had to work through my feelings and thoughts of uncertainty.  When I made the decision, I wanted to be sure.

And, I was.  I can’t say, for certain, how or why I was sure.  But, I was.

I feel fortunate to have such strong memories of my baptism.  But, when I ask, “Do you remember your baptism?” and say, “I do,” I’m not just talking about the event itself.  Whether, or not, we can recall the details of how or when we were baptized, baptism is more than a moment.

In many traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament.  The traditional definition of a sacrament, from St. Augustine, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   The “outward and visible” sign of baptism is water, of course.  An “inward and spiritual grace,” is also at work.

Baptism is more than a religious ceremony.  Baptism is spiritual change.  Baptism is transformation.  Baptism is new life.  Baptism is an altered identity.  Baptism is a new affiliation.  Baptism is a new way of being and living.

I think of baptism this way…  When I was born, I was born into a physical body – male, caucasian, flat-footed, brown-haired and blue-eyed.  I was born into a particular family called “Rains,” with a certain history, values, rules, and expectations. I was born into particular culture – in my case, “Southern,” where I learned to say, “y’all.”  And, by birth, I became a legal citizen of the United States of America, and became subject to its particular laws and obligations.

But, when I was baptized, I was spiritually ‘born again.”  I became a member of a different family (God’s), and I became part of a different culture (the Church), and I became a citizen of a different kingdom (the Kingdom of Heaven).  And, my baptismal identity is my primary identity.  My baptismal allegiance is my primary allegiance.

Remembering your baptism isn’t about remembering the event.  Remembering your baptism is remembering who you are as a member of God’s family, as a member of the Church, and as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been spiritually changed.  Remembering your baptism is remembering you’ve been called to be like Jesus.  Remembering your baptism ought to affect the way you treat people, the way you conduct business, the way you vote, the way you shop, the way you give, and the values you aspire to live by.  Remembering you baptism ought to affect EVERYTHING!

Pope Francis says, “We are called to live our baptism every day, as new creatures, clothed in Christ.”

Do you remember your baptism?

Ignoring the Bible

Ignoring the Bible

I’m always reading fiction, along with whatever else I might be studying.  I’m currently ready Annie Dillard’s, An America Childhood.

Dillard speaks as a girl, growing up in Pittsburgh, in the mid-Twentieth Century.  About midway through the book, she describes the character’s exposure to church, summer church camp, and the Bible.  She writes,

“The adult members of society adverted (referenced) the Bible unreasonably often.  What arcana!   Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes?  If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it.  They didn’t recognize the vivid danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a case of its wild opposition to their world.  Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them.”

Read it again, and let it sink in.

Now, read it again.

“this scandalous document…”

“they would have hid it…”

“vivid danger…”

“its wild opposition to their world…”

“and ignore them…”

According to Dillard’s character, the Bible is a scandalous, dangerous document, that through repeated exposure can awaken us to the fatal flaws of this world, and that we act like we believe, but usually just ignore.

What if Dillard is right?  What if Scripture is dangerous?  What if we didn’t ignore Scripture?  What if we, instead, through repeated exposure, caught “a case of its wild opposition to their world?”  

I think we need a lot more of that!

 

The Black Panther and the Church…

The Black Panther and the Church…

Sunday afternoon, I watched the long-awaited and much-anticipated movie, The Black Panther.  I thought it was excellent.  But, when it comes to super-hero movies, I’m easy to please!

The Black Panther is both a super-hero and the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda; a small central-African nation, presenting itself to the world as poor and “third world,” while concealing incredible wealth and advanced technology.  Tradition, and fear, have kept the advanced Wakandan society hidden from the world, for generations, all-the-while possessing gifts that could address the world’s greatest needs.

Underlying the primary story-line of the movie are questions about Wakanda’s purpose. Should Wakanda remain hidden from the world, keeping its precious gifts to itself?  Or, should Wakanda use it’s technology to improve, or possibly punish, the world?  Are these gifts to be shared, protected, or hoarded?  Does Wakanda exist for itself, and its personal hoard?  Or, does Wakanda exist for the sake of the world?

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t help but think of the Church.  We also have a treasure the world desperately needs.  We, the Church, also struggle with the purpose of our existence.  Do we exist for ourselves?  Or, do we exist for the world?  Are we a kingdom in hiding, or a kingdom advancing across the earth?  Is this treasure intended for us to keep to ourselves?  Or, is the treasure meant to be shared?

Many would argue the Church isn’t hidden, that our doors are open, and that our treasure (God) is available to all.  True.  But, I would argue thousands drive by our churches every day, with no knowledge or understanding of what we are, what we do, or why we do it.  For all practical purposes, we might as well be hidden.

But, we don’t have to be.  We have the greatest treasures of all (God, and each other), and there’s more than enough to share.  We have treasures the world needs.  We have treasures that can change the world.

Every Marvel movie has an added post-credit scene – sometimes more than one.  In one of the two post-credit scenes, the Black Panther, as King T’challa, stands before the United Nations, announcing Wakanda’s plans to share its treasures with the world.  One of the UN delegates, not knowing what Wakanda has hidden, ignorantly asks, “What can a third-world nation, like Wakanda, possibly have to offer us?”  The scene ends with T’challa smirking.

Perhaps the world is asking the same of the Church.  “What can the Church possibly offer the world?”   We know.  Lets show them!

 

 

Heroes

Heroes

“God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory.” St. Augustine

I’ve been thinking about my heroes.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I heard something, or read something about heroes.  Perhaps it’s the talk of the heroic acts of students, teachers and coaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Perhaps it’s just a thought that randomly popped in my head.

Actually, I’ve been pondering what my particular heroes say about me.  Is there something about who they are (or were) or what they do (or did), that speaks to who I strive to be?

As an only child, I spent a lot of time, growing up, alone – as most only children do.  As an introvert, I didn’t mind.  That space, I think, helped me develop a lively imagination.

In third grade, I discovered comic books and super heroes, and I was enthralled.  I quickly discovered a small comic book store, within a bike-ride of my house. In addition to new comics, and boxes and boxes of preserved comics in plastic bags, there was a box of old, used, worn and torn comic books, for only $.25.  Just about every quarter I earned, found, or was given, was spent buying $.25 comics.

By the way, I still have most of them.

My favorites were Superman and Batman, but I loved them all.  At one point, I created and drew my own super heroes.  I loved their courage.  I loved their super-powers.  I loved their cool hideouts, vehicles, and weapons.  I loved how they always saved the day, no matter how terrible the schemes of their evil foes.

Though I haven’t read a comic book in ages, I absolutely love all of the super hero movies of the past decade.  In fact, while some are more critically acclaimed than others, I’ve yet to see a bad one.  A “bad” super hero movie, to me, is still better than just about anything else!

While I still love the heroes of fantasy, I’ve also accumulated a growing list of real-life “super” heroes.  Though most of my heroes are “known,” at least in certain circles, few are/were rich, or powerful, or successful by “worldly” standards.  Though some have risen to honorable positions, and received accolades, few are/were motivated by such things.

My heroes of history include St. Francis, who abandoned wealth and comfort to serve God and the poor; Mother Teresa, who ventured into the dangerous streets of Calcutta, to serve the sick and dying; John Wesley, whose passion for God and dissatisfaction with the spiritual status-quo sparked a movement; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor; Oscar Romero, who was martyred for standing with the poor of El Salvador;  Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred for his fight for justice on behalf of people of color.

My living heroes include Pope Francis, as he leads the Roman Catholic Church (and all of us) from a place of humility and love for ALL people; Barack Obama, who consistently demonstrates leadership with character; Jimmy Carter, who may not be remembered as a great President, but has given his life to Christ-centered service; Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, author and activist, fighting for the lives of death-row inmates unfairly tried and sentenced.   Dona Maria Tomasa, an incredible Mayan woman, and dear friend, who overcame the destruction of the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal murder of her husband, to lead a weaving cooperative for widows, called “Ruth and Naomi,” that now sells hand-made products internationally; my Bishop, Kenneth Carter, who leads from a place of consistent, grounded, Christ-centered hopefulness; and many, many, many of my former students from the Florida State University Wesley Foundation, who are now leading and serving to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on my heroes, I see themes emerge: leadership, humility, dissatisfaction with the status quo, authenticity, fearlessness in the face of opposition, service and sacrifice, courage, commitment to change, depth of character, belief that a better world is possible, perseverance, overcoming hardship and resistance, and a deep passion for God.

As much as I love the “super” heroes of my childhood fantasies, I’ll never possess a superpower.  But, as I look at my list of real-life heroes, I see much I can strive to imitate.

I wonder if that’s why certain people become our heroes?  Perhaps they represent who we wish we could be.  Or, perhaps, they represent, to some degree, who we can be.

Who are your heroes?

 

God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.