Saturday, April 19, 2014

What Does the Word "Easter" Mean?

        Joyce was getting ready to post something on Facebook this morning and she said, “I’m going to wish everyone a happy “Resurrection Day.”

“Why don’t you say Happy Easter?” I asked.

“What does the word Easter mean?” she asked me.

My answer was, “Gee, I don’t know.”  So I looked it up.

        According to the Venerable Bede, an English Monk and historian from the 8th century, the word Easter came from the goddess “Eostre” whose festival was celebrated by pagan Anglo Saxons at the vernal equinox and was associated with spring and fertility.  Perhaps this is a reason that some people don’t want to use the word “Easter.”  The only problem is that there is no other record of this goddess in antiquity. 

        The English word “Easter” is related to the German “Ostern” which refers to the east—the dawning.  That makes sense.  But there must be a better reason. 

        The strongest tradition relates Easter to Passover.  Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover feast and the Gospel writer John makes of point of telling us that at noon, the hour of Jesus crucifixion, the paschal lambs were also slaughtered.  The Hebrew word for Passover is “pesah” and in most European languages it is the origin of the word for Easter. 

        Just as the Paschal lambs were sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross becomes the atonement for our sin.  Easter then means more than “resurrection,” it means forgiveness of sin through the cross and abundant life and life everlasting through the resurrection.  The cross loses its meaning without the resurrection.  The resurrection loses its power without the cross. 

        I’m often asked why we use the term “Maundy Thursday.”  That question is one I do know without having to look it up.  The word “Maundy” is Latin for mandate.  It was on Thursday night of Holy Week in the Upper Room that Jesus gave his disciples a new mandate, a new commandment, “That you love one another as I have loved you.” 

        I can’t think of a better way of celebrating Easter than following Jesus mandate to love one another, can you?  Especially since our sins have been forgiven and we have the dawning of a new day to live!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Do We Call It "Good Friday?"

          So why do we call it “Good Friday.”    The crucifixion was anything but good.  It was the most terrible form of execution, designed to inflict the greatest amount of suffering, humiliation, and pain.  The Germans call this day Karfreitag. The Kar part is an obsolete word, the ancestor of the English word care in the sense of cares and woes, and it meant mourning. So in German, it is “Mourning Friday.” And that is what the disciples did on that day—they mourned. They thought all was lost.

        It is only in English that we talk about a “Good Friday.”  Some have said that good can also mean holy, but I think that is a stretch.  There are a number of cases in set phrases where the words God and good got switched around because of their similarity. One case was the phrase God be with you, which today is just good-bye. So perhaps Good Friday was originally God’s Friday.

        But perhaps the reason we can call the day of crucifixion “Good Friday” is because of the good that was accomplished through this horrific act.  In the crucifixion Jesus became our sin.  He died to give us life.  Through his death our sins are forgiven.  The crucifixion led to the greatest good.  “For God so loved the world that he gave . . .”  

        If we call this day “Mourning Friday” with the Germans, we are facing reality head-on.  We live in a world of pain, suffering, injustice, and sadness—in the darkness we are left to mourn.   But if we choose to call this day “Good Friday,” we are also facing reality, but with a different outcome.  Because of the cross we have hope.  Because of the cross the darkness becomes light. 

        Dr. Thomas Long wrote about the two worlds that are colliding in the cross and resurrection.  He says of the women who came to the tomb on Sunday morning, “Without even knowing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and the rich get richer, and the weak will eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate, and people hatch murderous plots, and the dead people stay dead, and they entered the startling and breathtaking world of resurrection and life.”  

        On this “Good Friday” let us remember who we are!  In the words of Pope John Paul II, “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song!”



Saturday, April 5, 2014

Well Done Good And Faithful Servant

        I remember Joyce telling me that Ardell Lanier was on the phone.  If Ardell is calling me, I thought, it must be something important.  It was.
        One of Lexington’s most generous and faithful servants is being laid to rest this weekend.  Ardell Lanier was a successful businessman who believed in giving back to the community who supported his business.  He was a cornerstone in First United Methodist Church.  Ardell and Edna have been generous benefactors of numerous agencies, charities, and worthy causes in the community.  My son’s agency, Carolina Cancer Services, is indebted to the Lanier’s for the house where they are headquartered. 
        Lanier Hardware is an institution in our town.  No visit to Lexington is complete without time to browse through Lanier’s.  If Lanier’s doesn’t have it—you probably don’t need it.   A few years ago I was getting ready to go to Belize when I got a phone call from a missionary in Belize telling me about a part he needed.  I had never heard of it.
        “It will be hard to find,” he told me.
        I went to see Ardell.  He knew exactly what I was talking about, but did not have it in stock.  “When do you need it?”  He asked.
        “I’m leaving for Belize in two days,” I told him.
        When I got on the plane I had the part with me, thanks to Ardell. 
        But perhaps nothing tells you more about the heart of this great man than the reason for the phone call that day.  Ardell told me that the prison needed a chapel and he was committed to raising the money to make it happen.  He wanted me to serve on the committee.
        I had every reason to say no.  I was already serving on two hospital boards, several community boards, and had more on my plate than I could remember.  But saying no to Ardell never entered my mind.  As Max Walser said, “The members of the prison board all told me that God was leading them to do this.  I wasn’t sure I heard the voice of God, but I heard Ardell’s voice and that was all I needed.”
        Raising money to build a chapel at the prison was an impossible task.  Lexington’s economy was at an all time low.  The recovery from the recession had not even started to materialize.  And this was a very unpopular cause.  Many people would not even consider investing in a chapel for prisoners. 
        But Ardell didn’t worry about popular opinion or economic forecasts—he had a greater calling.  He accomplished the impossible and a beautiful chapel is in use at the prison today.  I don’t know of anyone who could have accomplished that other than Ardell Lanier.   And nothing tells you more about the heart of this humble servant than his desire to build a prison chapel for the “least of these.”
        Hear the words of Jesus from Matthew 25.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

  Well done, good and faithful servant.

Monday, March 31, 2014


We were standing on holy ground! A group of your Lexington friends and neighbors arrived in Israel on March 1 for a spiritual pilgrimage. Even though this was my fifth trip to the Holy Land, the experience never grows old.

I remember a strange sensation I had on my first trip to Israel in 1996. We were 6,000 miles away from home in a strange Middle Eastern country, in the heart of the world's three major religions, with different languages and different customs; yet I kept having the feeling that I had been there before. Then it dawned on me. I was in the land of the Bible, and the Bible has been a major part of my life since I was a toddler. Of course, I had been there before — many times.

There have been many exciting discoveries in Israel since I made that first trip almost two decades ago. One of the latest is the excavation of ancient Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The work is so recent that it is not even open to the public, but our savvy guide knew just what to do to get us in the middle of the ruins. We were soon standing by the foundation of an ancient synagogue, not realizing that we were standing on holy ground.

CNN and all the major news outlets reported Sept. 10, 2009, that a first century synagogue had been discovered quite by accident. Plans were being made for the construction of a hotel when a routine archeological test revealed that something old and very important was resting just beneath the surface. Since then archeologists are saying that this discovery is the greatest in decades, maybe the most significant discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Our guide, who is an expert in biblical history and a walking encyclopedia of archeological knowledge, shared with us that some scholars were questioning whether synagogues even developed before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. This would negate all the stories in the gospels of Jesus preaching and teaching in the synagogues. And what about the Apostle Paul visiting all the synagogues on his missionary journeys? But then they started to build a hotel in Magdala and boom, a discovery that rocked the archeological world. A Roman coin dates the synagogue back to at least 29 AD, making it the oldest ever discovered.

Jesus was in nearby Capernaum when he announced that he must visit the nearby villages. Mark (1:39) reports that "he traveled all over Galilee, preaching in the synagogues. The closest synagogue to Capernaum was Magdala, and that's where we were three weeks ago, standing on holy ground. Jesus most certainly preached there and walked across the mosaic floor that we could reach out and touch.

In Magdala Jesus met one of his most faithful followers, a woman named Mary. Was she in the synagogue on that first Sabbath when Jesus came to town? The excavations at Magdala reveal a very wealthy city, and according to Luke 8:2-3, Mary was not only one of the women who followed Jesus, she also became a financial benefactor of his mission. Unfortunately, people have given Mary a bad name through the years, but that has not always been true. Some of the early Christian leaders called Mary of Magdala "an apostle to the apostles." Perhaps these new discoveries will once again cleanse Mary of the demons that have plagued her for centuries.

Mary followed Jesus and supported him, and she was faithful to the end. An eyewitness to the horrific crucifixion, Mary was blessed to be the first eyewitness to the resurrection. She also became the first evangelist; the first one to go and tell that "Jesus is alive!" And there we were, standing in her hometown beside the synagogue where Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God. We were standing where Jesus stood. We were standing where Mary stood. We were standing on holy ground.

But more important than where we stand is where we follow. Will we follow Jesus and the example of Mary who proclaimed the good news of the risen Lord to disciples who did not want to listen, much less believe? Will we be faithful to be financial benefactors to his mission? Will we go and tell the glorious news of the resurrection? When we do we truly find ourselves on holy ground.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Recalling An Angelic Grandmother

        I’ve been thinking about my grandmother this week.  Today, February 27, would have been her 112th birthday!  She’s been gone over 30 years now, but she continues to have a great influence on my life; in fact, she once saved my life.  Or maybe it was an angel. 

        We lived two doors down from her and I spent as much time at “Nana’s” house growing up as I did my own.  She doted on me and my siblings.  I could set up my electric train at her house, creating a railroad network than ran through all the back rooms and she never said a word.  She took me on wonderful trips: a train trip to Washington, DC; a cross-country trip across the nation that took us through 17 states; and trips to Alaska and Hawaii.  But she also expected the best from me.  She was my private tutor; grooming me in public speaking, drilling me on English skills and she was constantly trying to improve my penmanship (a failed effort!).  Nana rarely said no to me, but there was one occasion when she not only told me no, but said it loudly, emphatically, and unequivocally!   And the odd thing was—it was over the seating arrangement at a Sunday lunch. 

        After church each Sunday my grandmother and a group of her little-old-lady friends were go out to eat lunch and I often went with them.        There was a large group of ladies on this particular Sunday and we waited while they set up a big table in the very center of the restaurant.  We didn’t pay much attention to it, but over the table was a huge, rectangular, heavy light fixture with inlaid florescent bulbs.  It was almost as large as the big table where we ate.

        I started to sit down when my grandmother said sternly, “You can’t sit there!”  I didn’t understand.  What difference would it make where I would sit?  

        “Why?” I asked.

        Normally when I asked my grandmother a question she would take time to explain, but not this time.  In fact, totally out of character for her, she almost bit my head off when she said sharply, “Because I said you can’t sit there!  That’s why!  The answer is NO!  You sit over there and I don’t want to hear another word!”  Then my grandmother proceeded to sit in the seat I wanted and sent me to the other side of the table!

        Everyone looked at my grandmother with wonder.  No one had ever seen her this way.  I was almost in tears.  The little ladies thought she might be having a “spell!”

        I followed her command and soon everything settled down as we ordered our food and I listened to the ladies critique the sermon and the choir special of the morning.  As we were eating our meal, I asked for a refill on my soft drink.  I recall the waitress taking my glass and walking over to the serving counter.  As she was pouring the drink, I watched as the glass overflowed, but the waitress was totally transfixed on something else.  She was looking at the falling light fixture above our head.

        Then came a loud noise and the huge, heavy light fixture crashed down on the ladies at the table.  I heard screams.  I could hear my grandmother pleading, “Get if off.  Please get it off of me!”  It took several men to lift the fixture off.  An ambulance arrived and my grandmother was taken to the hospital.  Three or four of the ladies were treated in the emergency room.  There were no critical injuries.  No broken bones.  My grandmother was hurt more than anyone.  She had a terrible bruise on her shoulder where the light fixture hit. 

        The doctor told her it would take several weeks for the swelling and soreness to go away.  “I’m just thankful it was me,” she said.  “What do you mean?” the doctor asked.  “Ray wanted to sit in that chair, but for some reason I wouldn’t let him.”

        “If that had been him, he may have been killed,” said the doctor.

        I was thinking about Nana on her birthday, which was also my birthday.  I might not have been here to celebrate and write this column if she had not made me sit on the other side of the table that day.  Was it my grandmother?  Was it an angel?  She was always an angel to me!   Happy Birthday Nana!



Friday, February 14, 2014


        The big snow this week brought back memories of a much bigger snow 34 years ago when we were living in the church parsonage in Pollocksville, NC.  We remember that snow for a number of reasons, but primarily because we had four children including a two month old baby, and God sent his angel.    

        Weather forecasting is not an exact science today, but 34 years ago it was even more of a guessing game.  We heard we might have some snow, but no one predicted or could have guessed the magnitude of the storm that dumped almost two feet of snow on Jones County, North Carolina. 

        Earlier in the winter, someone brought me an old gas heater for my office at the church.  My office was always cold, but this old, gas heater –did I mention it was old—could get my office toasty in a few minutes.  I don’t know how old it was, but I would guess it went back to the 1930s or earlier. 

        The little town of Pollocksville didn’t have natural gas, but the church already had a propane tank to heat the baptistery water.  (See the story below)  We moved the propane tank (it took two people to move it) to outside my office window and ran a piece of copper tubing from the tank to the old gas heater.  I think I told you earlier it was old—very old.

        Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic Ocean, a classic Nor’easter was moving up the east coast while a frigid high pressure mass of Arctic air was blowing in from the north.  The weather forecasters finally realized what was taking place and told everyone to get home as quickly as possible because when this storm hit, it would be fast and furious and wouldn’t let up for quite a while.

        Jones County has always been rural and somewhat isolated from the rest of the world.  When we lived there, we had to go to New Bern (15 miles north) to buy groceries.  There was only one traffic light in the whole county.  Today there are two traffic lights.  We did not have cable television.  The most advanced technological device I had was a pager since I was on the local Fire Department and Rescue Squad, and a scanner that was tuned to local law enforcement and emergency channels.  The county only had one road grader which was operated by Junior Phillips who lived across the street from our house. 

        We bought groceries once a week and were well stocked so we didn’t need to make a mad dash to New Bern to the grocery store.  The church and the parsonage were located on adjoining lots.  I could walk out the back door and across the yard to enter the back door of the church.  I walked over to the church that afternoon to check and make sure all was secure.  When I looked in my office I saw the old gas heater and thought, “Well, if the power goes off I know where we can come to get warm.”

        Late in the afternoon it started snowing and the forecasters were right on target—it came in fast and furious.  The ground was quickly covered.  The snow was falling so fast I couldn’t see the church from the house.  The scanner was blowing up with reports of accidents.  Joyce was cooking supper and we were settling in for a long winter’s night when it happened.  The lights flickered and then went out. 

        We didn’t have any power.  Our house didn’t have gas logs or a fireplace.  Without electricity we had no heat.

        “Ray,” Joyce said anxiously.  “The baby! What will we do?”

        “I know where we can get warm,” I said.  “My office.  I can turn on the old gas heater.”

        About the time I said that, there was a flash of lightening.  We were in a thunder snow storm.  The wind was blowing so hard the blinding snow was coming in sideways.  You could not see more than 10 feet in front of you. 

        “”I can’t take the baby out in this,” Joyce said.  “Is there any way you can bring the heater over here?”

        I put on several layers of clothes, then put on my fire turn-out gear.  The boots were perfect for a big snow and the heavy coat would protect me from the furious wind.  I put my fire helmet on as if I was about to enter a burning house. Grabbing a flashlight,  Joyce wished me well and I was out the door. 

        By now the snow must have been 8 to 10 inches.  It was hard to walk in the heavy snow and the wind kept me guessing which direction I was walking.  And, I could not see the church. The flashlight was useless.  I was blinded by a blizzard—a complete white-out!

        Somehow I managed to make it to the church.  I went in under a covered awning that led into the basement.  Stomping the snow off of my boots, I used my flashlight to trudge up the steps to my office. 

        Even though I had gloves on, my hands were almost frozen and I had trouble disconnecting the copper tubing.  I finally freed the copper tube and guided it out the window.  Then I reached down to pick up the old gas heater.  It was not only old, but it weighed a ton.  Using both hands, I was able to pick it up.  Rather than risk walking down the basement stairs with the heavy heater, I used the main entrance to the church even though it would mean a longer walk in the wind and blizzard back to the house.

        I remember thinking that I needed to stop and rest, but the snow was stinging my face the same way it would in a sand storm.  I trudged on, out of breath, thinking I was going to drop it.  I kept thinking about the children and the baby, and praying that God would give me the strength.  I somehow made it to the house.

        I had to sit down and catch my breath.  I was covered in wet snow.  Joyce was already moving a mattress into the den so we could all sleep in the room with the heater.  Once I situated the heater I said, “Now comes the hard part—the propane tank,”

        I had already been thinking about how I would move the tank.  My thought was that I could roll it.  That would have worked on a normal day—but I had not taken into account almost a foot of snow. 

        As I made my way past the basement entrance to the church, I saw that awning that covered the entrance had collapsed under the weight of the snow.  And to think I had walked under that a few minutes before.

        I made my way to the window outside my office where the imposing propane tank was standing in the quickly accumulating snow.  I disconnected the copper tube and affixed it to my fire suit.  Then I gently pushed the tank on its side and started to roll it.   Only—it wouldn’t budge. 

        After several unsuccessful attempts, I stood the tank back up and grabbing it with a bear hug, I tried to drag it.  I did—it moved a few feet.  But it took every ounce of energy I had.  I tried again—a few more feet.  I not only was dragging the heavy tank that had recently been filled, but I was dragging it against the resistance of a foot of snow.  And the snow was still whipping down in a fierce blizzard. 

        I kept pulling at the tank, a few feet, a few more feet.  I would get out of breath.  Once I tried to pull it and lost my grip, tumbling backwards into the snow.  My heart was pounding.  I thought, “I could have a heart attack right here.  They wouldn’t find me until the spring thaw!”

        Joyce was also getting worried.  I had been gone too long.  I should have been back with the tank by now.  The house was getting colder.  There was no way she could leave the baby and the children.  She anxiously peered out the back window in the direction of the church, but all she could see was blinding snow. 

        I guessed I was half-way to the house.  I had come too far to turn back.  I could go to the house without the tank, but what good would that do.  Without any heat, we were all in trouble. 

        There was one thing I remember doing.  I was praying.  Praying that God would send me super-human strength.  Praying that God would send an angel to help me.  I kept thinking about the children, the newborn baby, my dear wife—they were all depending on me.  But I didn’t think I could make it.  I was totally exhausted.  It was harder and harder to budge the tank, even a few inches.  I tried rolling it again.  No luck and this time, I almost didn’t get it back up.  I sat down in the snow to catch my breath.  I remember thinking that I better not sit too long.  With the way the snow was pummeling down, I would be an igloo in no time. 

        “Please God, help me . . .”

        That was when I saw the light!

        Mike Coward was one of the “Good ole’ boys” in our church.  He had one of these big pickup trucks with 4 wheel drive and big, big tires.  He was riding around in the blizzard when “something told me to check on you.” 

        Going to the parsonage door, Joyce told him what was going on.   He headed in the direction of the church and soon found me and the tank.  Together, we lifted the tank—it took every ounce of energy I had left—and placed it outside the den window. 

        I was so frozen, I couldn’t even attach the copper tubing, but Mike did.  As I was trying to take off my fire suit, he hooked up the old gas stove and lighted it.  Just like that the room as getting warm and my angel was off to rescue another poor soul. 

        I finally thawed out.  We lit candles.  I turned on the scanner, that worked on batteries, and heard that no emergency vehicles were moving.  Everyone was trapped by the blizzard.  Later that night we heard Junior Phillips pull his big road grader in front of his house.  He went inside and went to sleep.  He later told us that trying to plow the road was useless, so he came home.

        All six of us slept in front of the old gas heater that night.  In fact, it got rather toasty in the room.  The children and the baby slept soundly.  Joyce and I stayed up, wondering when the storm would let up.

        The next morning we were blanketed by 18-20 inches of snow.  We took everything out of the refrigerator and put it on the front porch to keep it cold.  The power stayed off for a couple of days, but the old gas heater—did I tell you it was old—the old gas heater kept us warm. 

        I will always be grateful to my angel, Mike Coward, who rescued me that night.   And whenever we have a big snow, I think about the Blizzard of 1980.  And Ella Rae, our granddaughter has a favorite story:  “Tell me that story, Gdaddy.  The one about when daddy was a little baby in the big snow.”  And I do—I tell the old story, and like the old gas heater, it warms me every time. 


It was 30 years ago when he rode his bicycle into our back yard and stopped for a visit.  Johnny was a kind, gentle, and pleasant young man.  I’m guessing he was in his 20s.  People told us he was “a retarded boy,” a term we don’t use anymore.  Like many who are limited in different ways, Johnny made up for with an over-abundance of love and kindness.

        “How do you get that water in the pool?” he asked. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about.  “What pool?”

        “The one in the church,” he said. 

        I asked him if he wanted to go and see. We walked over to the church and I showed him the pipes that supplied water to the baptistery.  

        “Is it cold?”

        I explained to him how we heated the water with a makeshift gas stove that looked suspiciously like a still.  Satisfied, Johnny got on his bicycle and returned home.

His father approached me a few days later and told me that Johnny was talking about being baptized.  “We have never pushed baptism with him,” he said.  “There’s so much about it that he doesn’t understand.”

        Over the next few weeks Johnny would stop by and we would continue our discussion about baptism.  We went from the mechanics of the water, to what one would wear, to the meaning of baptism.  He nodded his head in agreement but I didn’t know how much he comprehended. 

        Finally, Johnny told me one day that he was ready to be baptized.  I explained to him that in our Baptist Church, one would come down to the front during the final hymn so I could share his decision with the church.  He agreed but when the time came, Johnny had disappeared.  I found him later that week and asked if he still wanted to be baptized.  I sensed he was fearful so I tried to reassure him.  As I was rigging up our homemade gas water heater, I wondered if we would have a baptism or not.  

        When it came time for the baptism Sunday morning Johnny was there, but he was scared to death.  I talked to him for a moment.  I really thought he was going to back out. I could hear a hush in the sanctuary.  I knew they were waiting on us. 

        We walked to the steps leading into the water.  I walked down into the water and looked up at him, holding my hand out, inviting him to come.  He hesitated.  It seemed like a long time as he stared at the water, trying to make up his mind. 

        “It’s okay,” I said.  “You will be fine.”

        Slowly, Johnny took a step and then another.  As he entered the pool he let out a yelp and loudly proclaimed, “Whoo boy, this water’s cold!”  It was more nerves than anything else.

        He stood in the water, shaking.  I said.  “Are you ready?”  He nodded his head.  I stated the baptismal formula, pronouncing that Johnny Parker was being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   He held his breath and went under the cleansing waters of baptism.

        Just as quickly he emerged, shaking his head like a puppy coming out of a bath, and he looked at his hands as if they had been transformed.  He smiled a big smile and confidently walked out of the pool. 

        There was a transformation that day, but not just with Johnny.  Johnny was a child of God, always had been, before and after the baptism.  But as I stood there before a trembling young man in the cool waters, I recognized not his weakness, but mine.  I was not the one who lifted Johnny out of the water.  No, it wasn’t me, but a power much greater.    

        The congregation was also transformed.  Tears of joy punctuated a celebration of God’s goodness and grace.  We realized that in God’s family all are favored and all are blessed.  And I think that if I had listened closely I would have heard the words, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” 



Saturday, February 1, 2014

No One Loves A Loser, Except Jesus

Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday and when all the hype and extended pre-game coverage, the incredibly expensive commercials, the extravagant halftime show, the incessant commentary and analysis, and, oh yes, the game are finally over only one team will be the winner, only one team will raise the trophy, only one team will be the champion of all.  The only problem with winning is that you have to have losers.  Everyone loves a winner.  Everyone would just as soon forget a loser. 
      By Monday morning either Payton Manning or Russell Wilson will be lauded as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, be on the front page of every paper, appear on all the morning talk shows, and make plans to go to Disney World.  The other one will . . ., well, I’m not sure what the loser will do.  No one loves a loser, except Jesus. 
      The words of Jesus often fly in the face of all that we hold to be important. We live in a success driven world.  Students are encouraged, and often pressured to be the top student in their class.  We compete for the best jobs that pay the most money.  We go above and beyond what is expected in order to be successful.  We honor our success by building bigger homes, buying expensive cars, wearing the best clothes, eating in gourmet restaurants, and becoming members of exclusive clubs and organizations.  We want to be a winner, to raise the trophy of success, to be the champion of all.  We have worked hard, sacrificed to get to the top, and established ourselves as outstanding and exceptional individuals.  We are encouraged to enjoy the fruits of our success.  After all, we earned it—we deserve it.  We did it on our own—didn’t we?
      Jesus applauds success as well.  We have all been created with many gifts and great potential.  We honor God when we realize our God-given potential and use our gifts to accomplish great things.  But we didn’t do it on our own—not by a long shot. 
      While Jesus applauds success he isn’t ready for us to raise the trophy and claim victory—not yet.  He reminds us that to whom much is given, much is required.  And he expects us to focus on those who have not made it to the top, the people he focuses on, the people that many would call “losers.”  Rather than lifting up the trophy of success, Jesus wants us to lift up the losers.
      My friend, Gary Gunderson, calls them God’s favorite people.  They are the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, the underdogs, and the ones who are left behind.  Jesus is always lifting these people up, caring for them in a special way, focusing on their needs, urging us to live with less so they can have more.  Jesus loves the losers. 
      While most of you who read this column are not poor and homeless—therefore not a loser—the truth is we all are losers.  We go to great lengths to convince ourselves and others that we are not, but we are.  No matter how hard we try, we are still plagued by insecurities, we still find it hard to love ourselves and others, we still struggle with the dark places in our souls, and we are still destined at the end of all of our striving to return to the dust of the ground.  We are all losers and that is not something to be ashamed of, it is one of the defining elements of our existence. We can’t do it on our own.  And until we recognize it and confess it we will have a hard time receiving the mercy, forgiveness and grace that Jesus offers. 
      When I understand that I’m not a winner, only a loser who has been blessed by God, I can reach out and share my success with those other losers who haven’t been as fortunate.  And if I am faithful and live my life serving and blessing others, I may be fortunate enough to one day hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”   That is when I can finally raise the trophy because Jesus loves the losers.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Threads of Feeling

        On a dreary winter’s day in 1767, a sad and desperate mother by the name of Sarah Bender painfully made her way to an impressive building in the London suburb of Bloomsbury.  She was holding her baby boy Charles.  Sarah had come to the agonizing conclusion that Charles would be better off in the Foundling Hospital than at home with her. 

        She understood what would happen.  She would hand over her baby anonymously. Neither her name nor the baby’s name would be recorded.  In a single moment, his past would be erased, his history would be wiped out, a new name, and a new identity would begin.

        But one fact could not be erased; one reality could never be altered.  Sarah Bender would always be the baby’s mother.  He would always be her child.  You cannot erase DNA—you cannot substitute who you were created to be.  And there would be a connection—one small link, one mark of identification that would be preserved.

        A few weeks ago Joyce and I had the privilege of visiting Williamsburg to plan for our 17th Annual Bible Study Field Trip this May.  While Joyce was attending a workshop, I was enjoying the museums of Williamsburg.  I love museums.  I could spend days at the different Smithsonian Museums in Washington.  The Williamsburg museum is exceptional.  They have an amazing collection of early American paintings, furniture, and artifacts.  But as I browsed through the museum that morning, I was not prepared for a traveling exhibit that was on display.  With the exception of the Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington, no museum exhibit has affected me emotionally as much as this exhibit titled “Threads of Feeling.” 

        As soon as Joyce got out of the workshop I said, “There is something that you must see.”

        The Foundling Hospital of London existed from 1741 to 1760 and received over 16,000 babies.  While one might think most of these babies were illegitimate or given up for reasons of convenience, that was simply not true.  The great majority of these babies came from mothers who loved their child, but due to poverty, unemployment, disease, death, or other reasons simply could not provide for them.  To give up their child was agonizing for most of these mothers, but it was also a sacrificial act of love.  Because the mothers recognized that in many cases the only chance their baby had for a better life, the only chance their baby had for survival, was to give them up and leave them at the Foundling Hospital. 

        But the decision was not irrevocable. 

        While the nameless mothers gave away their babies, who would be given a new name, the mothers, and only the mothers, always had the option of returning to reclaim their child.  And since the process was anonymous, there had to be a way, a system, a plan for identification.  And so the hospital requested that when the mothers left the babies, that they pin some kind of identifying token to the child, some type of matching material evidence that in the event their circumstances improved they could be reunited.

        Many of the mothers ignored the request.  They left their babies and walked away, never to return.  But over 5,000 mothers, mothers who loved their babies, who were in anguish as they walked away from the hospital, left a material token of identification in the hope that one day they could see their child again and claim him or her as her own. 

        The majority of these identifying tokens were pieces of fabric, all different types of fabric; calico, flannel, gingham and satin, many in the form of ribbons.  The hospital promised that “great care would be taken for the preservation” of the tokens and the hospital was true to its word, for these tokens now comprise the “Threads of Feeling” exhibit that are on display at the Museum in Williamsburg.

        As Joyce and I walked through the exhibit, and those of you going to Williamsburg will also see this, I was filled with emotion.  For every token, every fabric represented a desperate mother who loved her child and lived with the hope that one day they would be reunited.

        Although they were forbidden to give a name, many found ways of smuggling that information past the admitting clerk.  Some wrote the name in a hidden place on the fabric, others stitched initials, some so shaky they are impossible to decipher.  Others stuck to the rules, but came up with elaborate patterns to ensure that no one could ever mistake their child with another.  One cut her child’s shirt in half; another deposited one sleeve with the baby and kept the other.  Other mothers employed a language of color and symbol to express their complicated feelings.  There are buds, flowers, acorns, birds and butterflies.  Buds and acorns and flowers hinted at a beautiful life still to come, birds and butterflies implied that they were giving up their child to set them free from its present grim circumstances.  And then there were the hearts—hearts in every form, every fabric, every shape—hearts of love, hearts of longing, hearts of hope. 

        The few mothers who did return to reclaim their children, brought the other half of the fabric with them so that it could be matched with the fabric that the hospital had on file.  And if the pieces matched, then there was no doubt as to the identity of this child, and mother and child were reunited. 

        The Threads of Hope is a poignant and powerful display of the love of a mother for her child, and a sad and tragic reminder of the circumstances of life that often force the separation of a mother from her child.  But more than anything else, the Threads of Feeling contain symbols of hope, that one day, my circumstances will be better, one day my child will blossom and live, one day life will be full of joy and gladness and we will be together again.

        When God created the heavens and the earth, he took a tremendous risk.  Rather than create a programmed and carefully scripted world that would operate like seamless computer program, rather than create the perfect world that would be perfect only because there was no other option, God took the greatest risk of all infinity, and he created humanity “in his own image.” 

        This Scripture that Connie read for us this morning is described by theologian Helmut Thielicke as the “Great Risk of Creation.”   For to be created in the Image of God, means that in many ways we are like God, most especially in our ability to think and reason and make decisions on our own. 

        We have creative potential even as God has.  We have the potential to grow and develop, to live and love, to offer redemption and reconciliation, to enrich community and bless the lives of others through our gifts and service.  We also have the potential to withdraw, to retreat, to build selfish walls around our existence, to oppress, to mistreat, and to inflict harm on others. 

        When our loving God carried us, like a mother carrying her infant in her arms, and when he left us at the door of creation, not knowing what the outcome would be, it was an agonizing and heart-wrenching decision.  But just as these mothers knew that this was on the only chance their child had at a better and fulfilling life, God knew this was the only chance humanity had to truly discover love and joy, and know life only as it was created to be. 

        After God left us at the door of creation, things started to decline.   We became more interested in what we wanted than what God wanted for us.  We selfishly ignored the boundaries that God had established, foolishly believing that that we could create our own paradise that we could find joy and happiness in ways that God never intended.

        And so we strayed away from God.  We forgot who we were created to be and most tragically, we no longer remembered our names, that we are children of God.  We established a new life and a new identity apart from God, and when it came crashing down we blamed others, subjected and oppressed those who were weaker to try to establish our own kingdoms that are self-serving.

        But imbedded deep within us, is a token of identification that was left by our loving God—a mark, a complex and hidden pattern of identity---the image of God.

        No matter what we have done, no matter how far away we have strayed, no matter how self-serving and hurtful our lives have been, we all contain the image of God.  We belong to God, we are his, and we never discover joy and love and fulfillment in life, until we are reunited with him. 

        In the first chapter of Romans Paul speaks of God’s invisible nature, the pattern of his eternal power and deity that is clearly perceived in creation—God’s threads of feeling.  It is only when we discover this token of identification imbedded deep within us that we can discover who we are and who we were created to be.  “True Freedom,” said Saint Augustine, “Is not found in moving away from that image but only in living it out.”

        Almost a decade after Sarah Bender left her baby boy in the arms of a nurse at the Foundling Hospital and walked away, there was a loud knock on the door.   The clerk opened the door to find a mother standing there holding an extraordinary piece of elaborate patchwork, made up of bits of printed fabric.  There was a heart embroidered with red thread.  They took the patchwork and matched to the other identical half that had been carefully filed ten years before.  Then they went and found a boy, a handsome young boy who was named Benjamin, but while he never knew it, his birth name was Charles and they walked with him to the front door where his mother, Sarah opened her arms and welcomed her son back home. 

        Generations and generations after God left us at the front door of creation, there was a loud clasp of thunder and the earth shook as a man took his last dying breath in a terrifying crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem.  And three days later the earth shook again, and the stone at the door of the tomb rolled away as what had been the darkest and most desperate of situations was transformed into light and life.  And emerging from the tomb, the risen Lord stood holding an elaborate and elegant patchwork of love, the threads of feeling proclaimed by the prophets, preserved by the scribes, and hoped for by all humanity.  It was the perfect match to the DNA within all of us known as the Image of God---for we belong to God, we may have strayed away, we may have tarnished that image, we may have rebelled against our creative nature, but now we know, there is no doubt, of who we are, and who we belong to, and what we are created to be—We are children of God, we are created in His Image to love, and serve, all of his family.