Monday, December 19, 2016

Losing the Star

(Arlington Optimist Christmas Breakfast, December 14, 2016)

When I was a kid, I sold Christmas cards door to door to earn some money after lawn mowing season ended. I still like to look at the cards. There are all kinds, of course. Some with Santa or the reindeer, or furry little animals or cardinals or bells or candles. Some have a manger scene, a nativity of some sort. But the clear winners in my book are the Wise Men, those saddle-sore Magi, astride their camels and always, following that beautiful radiant star.

Comedian and sometimes theologian Dave Barry tells their story like this: We know from the Bible that the Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem and gave the Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is always a nice gift, but frankincense and myrrh - at least according to my dictionary - are gum resins. Who gives gum resins to a baby?

The answer is: men. The Wise Men, being men, didn't even START shopping for gifts until the last minute, when most of the stores in the greater Bethlehem area were closed for Christmas Eve. The only place still open was Big Stu's House of Myrrh. So the Wise Men showed up at the manger, handed their baby gifts to Mary, and headed for the eggnog. Mary looked at the gifts - which were not wrapped, nor were they accompanied by cards - rolled her eyes, tossed the gum resins to the goats (which ate them) and said: "Next Christmas,, we are going to have some gift-giving RULES." But the Wise Men didn't hear her, because by then they were over by the crib trying to teach the Baby Jesus to pull their finger. That's Dave Barry's take on it.

You can probably guess what might have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men. They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

So, who were these wise guys anyway? These Magi nearly slipped in and out of history without being noticed and probably would have, had it not been for the little Prince they came to see. We know almost nothing about them. Legend counts them as three Wise Men, though the Gospel does not specify their number. Three gifts are listed and so it was assumed there must have been three worshipers. Eventually they were promoted to royalty and given names - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

In 1158 three bodies were discovered in the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan, and local politicians conspired to identify them as those of the three Magi. A few years later Emperor Barbarossa captured the city and took the remains to Germany where they were laid to rest in the Cologne Cathedral. Soon "The Shrine of the Three Kings" became famous. Visitors to the cathedral are still shown the tombs of these men who were among the first to welcome Christ to earth, though now the guides generally wink when they tell the story.

But there is something else about these mysterious gentlemen, a detail in their story that I had never noticed before. Apparently, these wise men saw the star when they began their journey. The star inspired them, a sign they somehow recognized, and they started on their way west toward Palestine. But somewhere along the way they lost the star. It wasn't constant, because they had to stop and get directions from King Herod before heading on toward Bethlehem. And then it says that when they set out from there, the star appeared before them and led them to the Christ Child. "And when they saw the star again, they were overjoyed."

Let me suggest that these noble stargazers have something significant to teach us this Christmas.

Life is like a journey, isn't it? We are all travelers in this world, looking for answers, for what satisfies, what matters, searching for what has lasting significance, ultimate meaning, supreme worth. Like the Magi we are on a long journey, we are all passengers, pilgrims, pioneers. You and I are seekers, sojourners, stargazers ourselves.

We begin our journey with such high hopes and noble dreams. We spot a bright star and go after it, so excited and enthusiastic. We can't wait to get where we are going, to reach our goals and fulfill our destiny. And then, somewhere along the way, we may lose the star. We find ourselves struggling to navigate, groping in the darkness, trying to find our way.

It might be a career setback, a broken relationship, a financial loss, the death of a loved one, or our own health crisis. It's a sudden, unexpected eclipse and you find yourself staring into the darkness. You've lost the star.

Sometimes we have to reroute. Sometimes in life we may find ourselves where we never dreamed we would be. Nothing looks familiar or friendly. This wasn't part of the plan. This place wasn't on our itinerary. Unexpected detours in life get us off track. We may have to make a course correction, reroute, recalculate.

A few years ago, Suzanne and I were driving back to Missouri, heading into St. Louis on I-64. I noticed a shiny new bridge over the Mississippi had opened, but my GPS had not heard the news. So, when I exited for the new bridge, my GPS showed my car going off the road, heading cross country straight toward the big river. "Recalculating! Recalculating!" As we cruised across that brand new bridge, my GPS showed the little blue car plunging into the Mississippi. Again, "Recalculating! Recalculating!" But amazingly enough, we came out on the other side and when the new highway merged with the old one, we were back on track.

There are times we do need to reroute, recalculate, we know that's true. But there are also situations where we need to hold fast, have faith, and keep going.

Other times we may have to start over, to begin again. Have you ever found yourself right back where you started? You never intended for it to happen, but it did. Wasted time, squandered opportunities.

Several years ago I was on a flight from Houston on my way to Ukraine to teach at the seminary there. I had routed my flight through London with a long layover so that I could go see our son who was finishing his college work at Oxford. We took off about ten o'clock for an overnight flight. I woke up about 2:30 and the nice British lady next to me said, "While you were sleeping, there was a volcano, and the turned the plane around." I laughed and said, "You know, that's the kind of thing that would happen to me." She pointed to the screen indicating our flight path and our little plane had made a U-turn and was headed back the way we came. They flew us all the way back to Houston. So after a nine hour flight we walked back into the same airport which I soon noticed will make passengers pretty testy. We dubbed it "The All-Night Flight to Nowhere."

Have you ever been on that flight? Maybe you had your itinerary all planned, but somehow, for some reason beyond your control, you got turned around. You find yourself right back where you started. It's time to begin again.

Who knows? Maybe we chose the wrong star to begin with. There are so many artificial lights, so much reflected, refracted light, at times it's hard to recognize the real thing, the star that is real and true, the star we can follow, the star that leads to where we long to be.

It's no easy thing, to navigate through life, to follow a star, but we can learn, we can do it. And in the darkest times, when thick clouds cover the night sky or a heavy fog descends, find your faith. It's your faith that will keep you going when you lose your star. It's faith that guides our feet when we have no light for the path ahead.

When I was a boy, my friend Bruce and I would watch scary movies together. This experience was intensified because Bruce's parents were funeral directors. We watched horror movies in the basement of the funeral home - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, sometimes we watched Dark Shadows. Scary stuff for little guys like us.

What made it even more terrifying for me was walking home in the dark after the movies. It was only 10-12 blocks, but it seemed like miles to me. I imagined werewolves behind every tree, vampires in the shadows, Frankenstein lurching out of the darkness. So here's what I did. I would run between the streetlights. I felt safe in the light so I could stop to catch my breath, and then I would take off again, running from streetlight to streetlight, all the way home.

Not a bad approach to life, I guess. When you can't find your star in the darkness, keep moving ahead, follow every little flicker of faith until the sky clears and you can see your way again.

Those old Magi would tell us today if they could. It was worth it at the end of the journey, when they finally arrived, when they knelt before the newborn King. It was worth every long, weary day and every pitch black night, worth every minute and every mile, every step of their epic search.

Whatever darkness or difficulty or discouragement you face during this Christmas season. Keep going. Keep the faith. Somewhere out there in the darkness, your star still shines.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Post-Election Prayer

A Pastoral Prayer, November 13, 2016, Memorial Baptist Church of Arlington:

O God, you are our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter... 

"Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth." The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

We rejoice this morning in your faithfulness, O God. In times of transition and change, you are the rock, our refuge. When the circumstances of our lives become unmanageable, when crisis looms and storms arise, when we come face to face with our own frailty and faithlessness, you give us a firm place to stand.

We cannot help but pray for our nation this morning, O God. A long, bitter contest has left us deeply divided. We struggle to find our common ground. Let those who were pleased with the outcome of this election not be vindictive or arrogant. May those who were disappointed not grow cynical or embittered. Give us grace, O God, not only for ourselves, but for one another.

We ask your blessings on all those who were elected to office this week, those continuing their service and those who are assuming new responsibilities. Grant your guidance and wisdom to each one, and especially for our brothers in this fellowship, Roy and John, as they represent their state, their district. Now that this election cycle has run its course, we pray for a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation, that wounds might be healed, and that we might focus again on all the unites us as citizens and as human beings.

As we commemorate Veterans Day this week, may we be reminded of the costly legacy of liberty that has been handed down to us, the stirring sacrifices of a countless host, and let us renew our commitment to all that is best in us, our noblest dreams and highest aspirations as a nation.

Help us to be good citizens of our country as we are reminded that our highest duty is to you, O God, as citizens of your present and coming Kingdom. May our lives together be about the work of bringing your Gospel and your grace, your love and your hope into our troubled world.

All this we pray in the name of the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Dr. David O. Moore - "Apples of Gold"

Last week marked the passing of a remarkable man, one of my true heroes, Dr. David O. Moore (3/11/21 - 10/28/16) longtime professor and chair of religious studies at my alma mater, William Jewell College. Tributes and words of appreciation have been posted from countless students, colleagues, and friends. His full obituary can be found here. I want to add my words of appreciation, knowing I am just one modest example of the blessing of D.O.'s life.

Dr. Moore came to Jewell in 1956, but I didn't show up on campus until the fall of 1978. I think I underestimated Dr. Moore as a professor initially. His warmth and gentlemanly charm belied his brilliant mind and his rigorous academic standards, but I caught on right away. I soon realized that this was no glorified Sunday School class. We were soon up to our necks in the Hebrew scriptures with a lifeguard who was unafraid of deep water. His love for the Bible and for the God of the Bible did not keep him from asking tough questions and wrestling thorny theological issues. A door had been opened for me into a grander vista of study and devotion, scholarship and faith. And for Dr. Moore, the two could never be separated. It was his own profound faith that he scrutinized and tested. When he spoke freely and personally of "Yahweh," (pronounced with an Ozark twang) I knew the two of them were well acquainted.

Not everyone was a fan of David Moore. In fact to some of the fundamentalist preachers in Missouri, Dr. Moore was a godless liberal, an infidel, even the devil himself. Under Dr. Moore's leadership, the religion department at Jewell chose to educate rather than indoctrinate, and for his trouble Dr. Moore was denounced and attacked, publicly and personally.

Through it all, Dr. Moore displayed the grace and poise of a Christian gentleman, never resorting to the tactics of his accusers, but standing true to his convictions and letting his life speak for itself. And it spoke volumes to me.  

By the spring of my sophomore year at Jewell, I was becoming quite enamored with the world of academia and professors like Dr. Moore made me ponder if perhaps I should give up on this call to become a pastor and instead become a teacher like my new heroes. One afternoon I stopped by Dr. Moore's office to tell him the news, my idea to follow in his footsteps and become a professor. I was sure he would be thrilled. He took time for me that day and heard me out, but his response surprised me.

"That would be fine, Drew. Teaching is a noble profession. I've given my life to it, and I'm certain you would do well. But, keep in mind, this is not the front line."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, what we do here in study and preparation is very important. You know that. But this, the college, is behind the lines. The front line for the Kingdom of God is the Church. That's where it happens. That's where the action is. And, I tell you the truth, Drew. I think you are a front line kind of guy." I left his office that day back on track, more focused and excited about my calling and the journey ahead.   

When Dr. Moore retired in 1986, I was one year into my first full-time pastorate in little Lincoln, Missouri. I invited Dr. Moore to come preach for our annual "College and Seminary Day." I walked out to the car to greet him as he arrived. He said, "There are two bags in the back seat, Drew. Would you mind carrying them in for me?" I found two large grocery sacks filled with books.

"What's this, Dr. Moore?"

"They're for you, Drew. I decided when I retired, I would share my library with some of my students. I picked out some books that I thought might be helpful to you. I hope you'll benefit from them." I was stunned.

"Are you kidding me? Thank you, thank you so much. I can't tell you what that means to me."

Most of Dr. Moore's books still sit on my shelves, a few I have given away. I continue to benefit not only from the books he chose for me, but also from his extensive notes penciled in the margins on nearly every page. Some days I feel like I'm back in his classroom. That's a good feeling.

That Sunday in Lincoln, Dr. Moore preached on Proverbs 25:11. "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." I knew he would choose an Old Testament text, but the proverb surprised me. As I look back now that verse seems an appropriate benediction for D. O.'s life. A word fitly spoken, a timely word, a wise word, a word in season, how good it is. God bless him.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hate Hate and Love Love

"These are the tests of true greatness - to bear up under loss, to fight the bitterest of defeat and the weakness of grief, to be a victor over anger, to smile when tears are close, to resist disease and evil men and base instincts, to hate hate and to love love, to go on when it would seem good to die, to seek ever the glory and the dream, to look up with unquenchable faith to something ever more about to be." - Zane Grey

Friday, September 16, 2016

Funeral Message: Marlin Brown

I am honored to share in this service today and grateful to Jean and Jared and Pastor Glenn for this opportunity. Marlin is family to me. He always has been. When I was born, my mother made note in my baby book of those who visited me in the hospital. The second line reads, "Leon Brown and Marlin," who would've been fourteen years old.

Marlin grew up with us. Dad baptized him as a boy. I think our family was a kind of entertainment for Marlin when he was a kid. Being an only child and living on the dairy farm was quite a bit different than sitting down to eat with the ten of us at our house. I know, Marlin belonged to Leon and Dorothy, but he's always been part of our family, too.

I knew Marlin back when he slicked his hair down, parted on the side, and wore those black horn-rimmed glasses. That was the look you fell for, wasn't it, Jean? I also knew Marlin when he had his big Afro, Marlin's Mod Squad look. And, I remember when Marlin had curly permed hair, back when Marlin and Jean were kind of their own odd version of the Captain and Tennille. Those were the days.

Looking back now, I was blessed to have a wonderful window into Marlin's life and ministry. When he served with Dad in Windsor and then again in Grandview, I was so blessed to have Marlin and Jean a part of my growing up years. And as I was exploring a call to the ministry myself, Marlin got me involved, encouraging me to stick my toe in the water and see what it's all about.

Quite a team they were, Melvin Hill and Marlin Brown, in both churches, a Paul and a Timothy, that become a Paul and Barnabas, and since those days, Marlin became a Paul himself, a godly mentor and example to many of us.

We all know what a wonderful organizer and administrator Marlin was. At First Baptist, Grandview, Marlin organized three separate and complete Sunday Schools to go with two worship services each week. One of the Sunday Schools was for over two hundred children who rode the eleven church buses that covered the area bringing boys and girls to church. I was one of Marlin's volunteers, as a bus captain and as a helper in children's worship which Marlin led, playing the piano and teaching the Bible story every week to a rowdy and rambunctious congregation of kids.

And Vacation Bible School in those days was almost beyond our imagination. It grew so large that it became two schools, one week for the east side of town and a second week for the west side. Nearly eight hundred children all told. Two whole faculties to enlist and train. We hear that, and we think Marlin must have lost his faculties. I was a college student by then working nights in the summer and Marlin asked me to head up recreation. I said, "No problem." He said, "Now, Drew, you'll want to get some help and make a plan, what you're going to do." I said, "No problem, Marlin. I got this." So on the first day, with one helper, one kick ball, a wiffle ball and bat, I waited in the yard until they brought out the first group, about 70 four-year-olds. It was the longest morning of my life. I learned to listen to Marlin.

I look back on those experiences now as a pastor and I think I would have said, that's enough. One Sunday School is just fine, a normal size VBS will be all right, a bus or two for those that can't get around, but not Marlin. Always reaching out, always doing more, finding room, finding a way, because at the core of his being, Marlin believed every person matters, every child is a potential child of God.

While Marlin was at Grandview he cared for the old as well as the young. Marlin started a telephone class for homebound people. Way before the internet and websites and live streaming, Marlin set up a conference call Sunday School class for those who were isolated and alone. I know about that, too, because my grandmother, Vesta Barnes, was in Marlin's class. Grandma would get up every Sunday morning and fix her hair and put on her dress and sit at her kitchen table with her Bible and her lesson and wait for Brother Marlin's call. Each of the members would greet one another and they shared their prayer requests and prayed together. Then Marlin would teach a twenty minute Bible study there on the phone. Grandma cherished that time. It was church to her.

Now, this was just a few minutes before Marlin would have to say goodbye to his class and run upstairs to lead that children's worship I was telling you about. And all Dad had to do was preach.

Years later, it was my great joy to come here to serve alongside Marlin in Harmony Baptist Association, and to be his pastor, and Jean, too, of course. I treasure the fourteen years that we could serve together and work together, here at First Baptist and in our association.

I think about Marlin's compassion for people and his missionary heart. In his long tenure as Director of Missions, this area changed a great deal, becoming a much more international population. Marlin did not view this change as a problem but as a calling and an opportunity to be on mission, right here and right now. He led us in the establishment of the first Hispanic Baptist Church and bringing Efrain Baeza here to lead the work. Every month Marlin and I had lunch with Efrain and a few others, planning for the future, praying over needs, seeing God work in amazing ways.

Marlin also led in support of a new Slavic congregation. Sometimes things went smoothly and sometimes we had to iron things out. Through it all, Marlin always kept his vision and his sense of humor. I remember when we attempted to have a trilingual worship service here at First Baptist, bringing us all together. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem was, we had translators from English to Spanish and from English to Russian, but no one who spoke both Spanish and Russian. So we noticed right off that this was getting complicated. We just got through the welcome and it had taken over twenty minutes. I remember looking over at Marlin, sitting there on the front pew. He just held up his hands and shrugged and gave me that grin of his.

You see, to Marlin, and to all who would follow Jesus, every person matters and every person is a potential follower of Christ, no matter their background or status in life. Marlin had a huge heart, tender compassion for all kinds of people. That's why he did what he did, and lived as he lived.
  • Mobs of children in Vacation Bible School
  • Kids riding the bus to Sunday School
  • Homebound saints isolated and alone
  • Teenagers like me trying to discern God's call
  • Immigrant families needing a fellowship of believers
  • The carnival workers at the State Fair
  • His neighbors across the street
  • The hurting in the hospital
  • The lonely in the nursing home
  • Sunday School teachers struggling to teach more effectively
  • Country churches that can't seem to find and keep a pastor
  • Congregations in crisis or conflict needing wise counsel, needing a peacemaker
  • Discouraged pastors ready to throw in the towel
All these folks mattered to Marlin. They were his mission field, his ministry, his calling. I must say, reflecting on Marlin's life and ministry, one question comes to my mind, a troubling question for you and me to ponder this afternoon.

Who of us would do as he has done? How few of us have the compassion, the selflessness, the patience, let alone the gifts and skills to do as he has done? As I honor Marlin's ministry and memory in my heart today, I can't help but pray as we all might pray in these moments: "Lord, give me a heart like Marlin Brown. Let me care as much, that I might serve as well. Amen."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"God's Politics"

(Preached on August 28, 2016, at Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia.)

I'm breaking my own rule this morning. In my 36 years as a pastor, I have never been willing or thought it appropriate to use the pulpit to engage in political discourse. My father who was a pastor took the same approach and I think it is part of the Baptist way, focused not only on the authority of scripture, but also on freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers.

I've always believed that if we preach and teach the Christian faith, raising up mature, devoted followers of Christ, then we can trust our people to apply their faith in the political realm according to their own informed consciences.

Maybe that's a cop out, an excuse in order to avoid controversy. I know that many other pastors of various stripes have no problem or hesitancy to use their pulpits to critique policies, promote legislation and even endorse candidates. And I know that pastors and pulpits have been used and abused in many ways in our history. For instance, during the civil rights movement, preachers spoke out both for and against racial segregation, all claiming to speak for God.

Another reason for my long silence on political matters is that all my life I have known devout, godly people from across the wide political spectrum. I have shared with you before about my grandfathers, Otis Barnes and Oscar Hill. Grandpa Barnes was a lay preacher in the Nazarene Church and later ran an inner city mission. Grandpa Hill was a Baptist deacon and a union president on the railroad, leading his union to integrate over fierce opposition. Two good and godly men, none finer. Grandpa Hill was a staunch Democrat and Grandpa Barnes voted against FDR four times, a lifelong Republican.

So, I've always known devout, Bible-believing Christians who differed in their political views and I'm certain you do, too. Right here in our fellowship we have a wide range of political perspectives.

But never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a polarized political landscape. Political discourse has degenerated into personal attacks and ridicule, gross distortions of the truth, ridiculous exaggerations, and angry threats of violence. And not just between the candidates themselves.

I am a student of history and I know that politics has always been a mean and ugly business, not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But I've never seen it like this. And we all pay a terrible price for it.

My sermon this morning was inspired by and borrows from a sermon by Dan Meyers, Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois.

Dan reminds us that we live in an age of finger-pointing. You can hear it in the tone of the comments made by candidates and commentators voicing their contempt for the other side. This finger-pointing, of course, serves its purpose. I makes it adherents feel very righteous. I provides great fodder for talk radio and the news networks. It offers the fireworks needed for the fundraising efforts of this organization or that party.

But there is a downside. As long as this tone of anger, fear, and pride dominates the moral and political discourse - as long as this notion prevails that there is a vast Left-wing or Right-wing conspiracy afoot, and those who don't see life as we do or vote as we do are either ignorant or malevolent - we will be these United States in name only. We will see citizens, politicians, and churches alike increasingly polarized into stone-throwing camps on the Right or the Left. We will lack the common cause and combined intelligence required to make lasting progress on the great issues that are of vital concern to both humanity and God.

Seven miles from here an inspirational tower rises 555 feet into the sky and points not to the Right or Left, but toward the heavens. The Washington Monument is known the world over, but some of its aspects have been lost to human sight.

You may not know, for example, that when its cornerstone was set on July 4, 1848, a copy of the Bible was put inside of it. President James Polk had it placed there as a sign of the role that the Bible originally played as the cornestone of this nation's vision and in the lives of leaders like George Washington himself.

On the aluminum cap atop the Washington Monument are engraved two words no tourist ever sees, unless you have a helicopter. The words are the Latin phrase, laus deo, the last words of Psalm 68. Laus deo literally translates, "Praise be to God! Blessed be God!" 

The Washington Monument stands as a reminder that there was a time when at least some clear-thinking Americans saw themselves as living for the praise of God above self, or party, or political action committee, or even above our nation's flag. What I want to ask you today is, what would it look like for more of us to do so in our time? How would it change the way we entered into the political and religious debates of our day if we could avoid the temptation to be finger-pointers and instead live pointing to the praise of God?

The Bible gives us a framework for doing this. We find it in the words of the prophet Micah: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Let me take that last part first, because it is the ground of the next two ideas. It would be good if we could model what it looks like to walk humbly with our God in discussions of religion and politics. There are two implications of that calling. The first has to do with the way we talk to others. Now, let me be dangerously blunt: too many Christians today are modeling their style of political and religious discourse after either the "apostle" Bill O'Reilly on the Right or the "prophet" Bill Maher on the  Left. It may get a rise or a laugh, but it doesn't lead to the praise of God or the enlightenment of others.

We would do well to reflect the counsel the apostle Paul gave to his protege Timothy amidst a season of great conflict in his church and culture: "Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:23-25)

The knowledge of the truth is the second context for humility. Please don't get me wrong: there are times when, on the strength of our reading of God's Word, we must throw our energies into an issue or cause with great passion. Last year I participated in a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill with the International Justice Mission regarding a bipartisan effort to end child slavery and human trafficking, certainly an issue where we can stand with some measure of solidarity. But, of course, it's not always so simple, so black and white.

The first mark of good people - as the prophet defines "good" - is that even when acting with great conviction, they will not be arrogant, but have some humility. They'll be humble enough to ask themselves, "Do I really know the good here, what's right, what's best, what's Christian? Do I know the mind of God in this matter?"

In the heat of the Civil War, an admirer said to Abraham Lincoln that she was very sure that God was on the Union side. Lincoln responded by saying, "My concern is not whether God is on our side . . . I know that God is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on God's side."

This, I think, is where the second part of the prophet Micah's words to us are needed today. It would be "good" if we in the Christian community would always be deeply concerned to "act justly" in the fullest sense. That takes a lot of thought, because God's view of justice defies our neat categories. God loves all people, in all nations, and because people's needs and situations are complex, God's vision of justice is also complex.

I formed a habit several years ago. Each year I read through the Bible in a different translation. It's been a great blessing and a real eye-opener for me as well. I know some of you have a similar discipline. I certainly recommend it.

Reading through the Bible it becomes apparent that God holds some very conservative views: he demands work rather then welfare for the able-bodied (1 Thess. 4:11, 2 Thess. 3:7-13, Eph. 4:28), he sanctions capital punishment for murderers (Gen. 9:6. Ex. 21:12, Lev. 24:17, Num. 35:16-21, 29-34), he esteems the life of the unborn highly (Ps. 139:13-16, Jer. 1:5), he justifies the forceful role of the state in maintaining law and order (Rom. 13:1-5), he confers great wealth on some people and calls this good (1 Sam. 2:7, Eccl. 5:19, Prov. 10:22), and he comes down very hard on sexual promiscuity and perversion and family-breaking of all kinds (1 Thess. 4:3-7, Heb. 13:4), You can see why Republicans are ready to claim God as the source of their vision.

The challenge, however, is that a careful reading of this same Bible clearly tells us that God has some very liberal views, too: he demands radical care for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 15:7-11, 24:19, 21, Matt. 19:21, 25:34-40, Luke 3:11, 14:13, Acts 6:1, Gal. 2:10, James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17) and compassion for the immigrant (Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 10:19), he calls for massive debt forgiveness (Lev. 25:25-30), he insists on very careful stewardship of the environment (Gen. 2:15, Lev. 25:4, Ps. 24:1) and pronounces judgment on those who destroy the land for their own gain. (Hos. 4:1-4, Rev. 11:18), he commutes the sentences of certain people who've clearly committed capital offenses (John 8:1-11) and calls for a radical inclusiveness welcoming all kinds of people (Gal. 3:26-28), he rails repeatedly against the selfishness and abuses of the wealthy (Jer. 6:13, Amos 3:15-4:3, Mal. 3:5, Luke 16:19-31, James 5:1-6), he calls for the cessation of war (Micah 4:3-4) and a variety of other policies that sound like they might have come right out of the Democratic playbook.

Have you noticed how we tend to focus only on those portions of scripture that seem to reinforce our own biases and perspectives, and we tend to ignore those clear teachings that prod us in directions we would rather not go? But the Bible is not our personal email server. We can't just delete the verses we would rather not put on display.

And then, of course, reading the verses in the Bible is just the beginning. We still must do the hard work of exegesis and interpretation. We dare not lift the words directly from the pages of the Bible and apply them haphazardly to contemporary issues without examining carefully the original historical and cultural context of the scripture, like just picking out a verse from "Two" Corinthians, for instance. It's not that simple, is it?

When we come to the Bible we are crossing a wide divide of two to three thousand years, and until we know with some degree of clarity what they were talking about, we don't really know what we are talking about. The ancient Hebrews were living in a different world, a savage and primitive time and place. The early Christians were faced with an entirely different set of challenges, living under imperial rule in a pagan context, the Greco-Roman culture.

Then, there is the matter of the Bible sometimes being at odds with the Bible. Are we basing our views on the Hebrew laws and practices of the Old Testament or on the ethics of Christ in the new covenant?

The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message states it like this: "The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures . . . The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." That's an important reminder and guideline for us as we try to apply the truth of scripture to the issues of our day.

All of this is to say that we ought to be very careful when we suggest that God is clearly with our own party's platform or that righteousness can be painted Red or Blue. The Bible challenges us to see that God's politics are more complicated and challenging than most of us have the stomach for. That may explain why, in the end, Jesus was rejected and condemned by both the liberals and the conservatives of his day, the liberal Herodians and the conservative Pharisees.

It also explains, finally, why God says through the prophet Micah that it would be "good" for us to "love mercy" more than we sometimes do. Historian Rodney Stark argues that there was one huge factor that helped Christianity capture the attention of the ancient world. It was Christ's revolutionary emphasis on mercy. Stark writes:

"In the mist of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. . . It started with Jesus . . . In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice . . . humans must learn to curb the impulse to show mercy, the cry of the undeserving for mercy must go unanswered. Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up."

This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The truth is we need one another to discern the way of God in our time. To find the way of righteousness that winds through the dark, confused maze of this age, we need the insights and gifts of the whole political spectrum and the whole community of faith. In a world where so many others are ready to condemn those with whom that disagree, it is vital that Christians point us toward the God who still reaches out to touch this world with that redeeming love where justice and mercy meet in the humility and grace of Jesus Christ. Praise be to God!

Let this prayer of George Washington be our prayer today:

I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have the United States in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. Amen.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beyond the Bloodshed

We have all been troubled and shaken by the horrific mass murder in Orlando early Sunday morning. We struggle to take in the devastating loss of life and the darkness of such hatred. As always in such tragedies, the news carried countless hours of reports, updates, stories, and descriptions. Sometimes in the midst of such carnage there are accounts of great courage and heart-rending tenderness. Most bewildering of all, is trying to make sense of the shooter, the killer, some mother’s son who came to believe that his murderous plan was justified, entirely appropriate, even God-honoring. 

Listening to the reports, it seems that this senseless act of violence is being interpreted, discussed, and debated from a variety of perspectives. In the aftermath of all the killing, while dozens of bodies were yet to be identified, government officials labeled this shooting an act of terrorism. Politicians immediately began to debate our national strategy in the war on terrorism and how to defend against such “lone wolf” attacks. Or is this an immigration issue? Shall we ban all Muslims from coming to America, judging the many by the actions of the one? 

Some commentators are talking more about gun control, wondering how a person being investigated by the FBI for his espoused ISIS sympathies could still legally buy an assault rifle. Others seem focused on the LGBT community as a target for these kinds of hate crimes. And, even as we think about all these issues the bottom line does not change – the murder of 49 innocent victims and countless others wounded physically or scarred emotionally from having witnessed such terrible trauma.

What goes on inside the human heart that gives rise to such hatred? How sick is our world that provides the soil in which hatred and intolerance can take root and produce such a deadly harvest? Ours is a world desperately in need of recall and redemption, a prodigal planet not yet willing to come home. 

What shall we do? We pray for those who suffer, those who grieve, and we pray for those who are so disturbed and disillusioned that killing has more appeal than living. We light a candle in the darkness. We turn loose the love of Christ in a loveless world. We sow good seeds of grace, Gospel seeds, that can help and heal, turn and transform, soften and save.  Against such love even this hateful world has no defense. 

“For God so loved the world . . .” Everyone and each one. Always has. Still does. Always will.    

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

This Side of Paradise

More wisdom this morning from Frederick Buechner about the nature of faith and what it means to follow this illusive Jesus:

Christ is our employer as surely as the general contractor is the carpenter's employer, only the chances are that this side of Paradise we will never see his face except mirrored darkly in dreams and shadows, if we're lucky, and in each other's faces. He is our general, but the chances are that this side of Paradise we will never hear his voice except in the depth of our own inner silence and in each other's voices. He is our shepherd, but the chances are we will never feel his touch except as we are touched by the joy and pain and holiness of our own life and each other's lives. He is our pilot, our guide, our true, fast, final friend and judge, but often when we need him most, he seems farthest away because he will always have gone on ahead, leaving only the faint print of his feet on the path to follow. And the world blows leaves across the path. And branches fall. And darkness falls. 

We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bite to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight. 

Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, Sarah are our brothers and sisters because like them, we all must live by faith, as the great chapter puts it with a staggering honesty that should be a lesson to us all, "not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar," and only from afar. And yet that country we seek and do not truly find, at least not here, not now, the heavenly country and homeland, is there somewhere as surely as our yearning for it is there; and I think that our yearning for it is itself as much a part of the truth of it as our yearning for love or beauty or peace is a part of those truths. And Christ is there with us on our way as surely as the way itself is there that has brought us to this place. It has brought us. We are here. He is with us - that is our faith - but only in unseen ways, as subtle and pervasive as air.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry", by Brett Foster

Most of my Missouri friends will remember the great Royals relief pitcher, Dan Quisenberry, who threw his famed side-armed sinkers during those glory days of 1970's and 80's. We also remember that a brain tumor took him while still a young man. Quiz is remembered as well for his quirky good humor, his plain-spoken faith, and his personal courage. I came across this poem by Brett Foster that includes italicized quotes from Quisenberry. He's still an inspiration, part of our Royals legacy, and a great example of authentic faith.

The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry (1953 - 1998)

I've had so many good things
happen to me.
So why not me?

And why not there, in that relic-worthy skull, where his good-willed
thrust and parry with the local press existed in its jocular fullness?

I think Christ
would do it that way. Or
Steve Garvey.

Hardly a laureled Hall of Famer, but saintly in the modern sense, still hero
enough, emblazoned on my place mat, his submarine curveball thrown.

No man is worth more
than another, and none is worth
more than $12.95.

He'd be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber:
those summer double-headers in the grim bubble of the Metrodome:

I don't think there are any good uses 
for nuclear weapons, but this
might be one.

I-70 World Series that year, whole state euphoric, that autumn of '85,
Was a Royals victory "God's will"? Of course! Their winning meant I'd be assertive.

God is concerned with hungry
people and justice,
not my saves.

New boy in Cardinal country, I crowed and wagged my mouth and galloped
to class wearing a plastic batter's helmet. When last bell rang I got my ass whipped.

It's here! It's Merry Christmas!

There are toys
in my locker. Gloves and bats and balls.

Friend of Dad's swore Quiz was a neighbor, single men in suburban apartments.
He gave me a signed ball (real? maybe? doubtful now) for a birthday present.

I have seen
the future, and it's much like the present,
only longer.

No idea where that ball went. For ten years I've been reprobate, estranged
by boredom from the mediocre Royals. The game never changes, but people change.
I hope Quiz had a good seat in heaven to watch the Royals return to his winning ways. More importantly, may we all learn to win at life, to throw our best stuff, and to hit whatever is pitched.

Monday, April 18, 2016

No Going Back

One bright Sunday morning we were all standing and singing in our contemporary worship service. The music was great and the singing was uplifting and heartfelt, I'm sure. But, there was one line of one song that we sing sometimes that really bugged me. It always bugs me, and I've heard the same words in other songs and often in speeches or sermons or conversations or even in prayers. "Take this nation back."

What does it mean when a Christian says we need to take or win or bring this nation back? Back to what? Back to the good old days? Back to when we felt more comfortable and secure perhaps? Back when the world was not quite so frightening? Back when people were more civil and respectable?

Back to God? Just when did God really call the shots around here? The whole idea that our country used to be a bastion of godliness is based on a distorted, inaccurate reading of history. We can idealize the past however we choose. We can pretend that we grew up in some Norman Rockwell painting, but be careful what you wish for. The past had it's own set of hangups and issues.

Back then, in the good old days, churches were mostly segregated, and few Christians ever questioned why blacks and whites weren't allowed to worship together. Racism was the status quo. Back then, women knew their place and stayed at home to raise children and keep house, and not by choice either. The few women who ventured into the workplace were usually restricted to menial, clerical positions befitting their inferior status in a male-dominated society.

Back then, we didn't have to worry so much about civil rights or caring for the disabled. Back then, gay folks stayed in the closet where they belong, and abuse and exploitation happened behind closed doors, so we didn't have to deal with it. Abortions were performed down dark alleys in unsanitary conditions by unqualified persons with no counsel or support available to young women. Those were the good old days?

It might surprise you to know that a much higher percentage of our U.S. population attends church today than during our early history. And, since when is the Christian faith about moving backward? This was the mistake of the ancient Hebrews, always looking back through rose-colored glasses. The prophets were forever calling the people to look ahead, move on, to focus on the new thing that God was doing.

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV)

Certainly, Jesus came proclaiming the new work of God in the world, and taught us to pray, not "Bring back the kingdom," but "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done." The Kingdom of God is coming, already initiated in Christ, a transforming power at large in the world, this world, today.

I know we are confronted today by terror and violence and uncertainty on a larger scale then we may have ever experienced. But the answer is not our futile attempt to turn back the clock to a time when evil seemed more manageable. The answer is to be the people of God today, to love this world and live out our calling in Christ here and now. Our commission is to claim the future, not reclaim the past. There's no going back. Full speed ahead.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Learning to Pray

Lately I have been reading Abraham Heschel's "I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology" in my own devotional time. His thoughts on prayer have disturbed and challenged me. I am often tempted, as most of us are, to approach prayer from a self-oriented, self-centered perspective. Our prayers are all about us, our needs, our wants, our concerns. In fact, unless we feel some strong sense of personal need, we are unlikely to pray at all. Rabbi Heschel helps me get myself out of the way so that I can connect with God, the whole point of prayer in the first place, and maybe, just maybe experience the wonder of His presence. So, I share with you some of Heschel's words, hoping they will speak to you as they have spoken to me: 

"We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.

We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it. We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life - the secret stillness that precedes our birth and succeeds our death. Futile self-indulgence brings us out of tune with the gentle song of nature's waiting, of mankind's striving for salvation.

Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-asserting? Why do we not set apart an hour of living for devotion to God by surrender to stillness?

We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God. We constantly pour our inner light away from Him, setting up the thick screen of self between Him and us, adding more shadows to the darkness that already hovers between Him and our wayward reason. Our mind has ceased to be sensitive to the wonder. . . .

Rushing through the ecstasies of ambition, we only awake when plunged into dread or grief. In darkness, then, we grope for solace, for meaning, for prayer."