Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Son of the South Speaks of the Confederate Flag


        I’m a true Son of the South.  I was actually born in Dixieland early on one frosty morn in the old Southern state of Alabama where “Heart of Dixie” was proclaimed on each license plate, Jefferson Davis pie was a staple on the dessert plate, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was never sung in church because it was a Yankee song.  My brother and I both had little Confederate uniforms to wear and one Christmas I received a Civil War solider set with 100s of blue and gray toy soldiers.  In Alabama it was never “The Civil War” but “The War of Northern Aggression,” “The Lost Cause,” or “The Glorious Cause.”  Robert E. Lee’s birthday was an official state holiday but not Memorial Day because it was Yankee holiday. 

        My great-great grandfather was Captain  John Karns McBride of the 9th Alabama Infantry.  He lost an arm at Gettysburg and was captured by the Yankees.  He was so thin and ragged by the time he returned home his wife did not recognize him.  Yet, his war heroics followed him into a political career and became legendary.  The local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy still bears his name and I understand there is a statue of Captain McBride in Lawrence County Alabama although I have never seen it. 

        Fighting General Joe Wheeler is also one of my family ancestors.  My mother grew up an orphan and General Wheeler’s daughter, Miss Annie, was always kind to my mother and her brother, passing down clothes including one of the General’s military winter coats for my uncle to wear.  I’m such a true southern boy that when I moved to North Carolina some thought I had betrayed my heritage by moving to a state that had the word “North” attached to it.

        While I am proud of my southern heritage and the courage and valor of my Confederate ancestors, I am not proud of the cause for which they fought.  We were taught it was about economics and states’ rights and Northern interference and aggression.  Very little was said about slavery which was the foundational cause of the war.  I realize that most of the Southern soldiers were not fighting for lofty moral or philosophical reasons.  I doubt if my ancestors who fought in the war owned slaves and I have no clue how they felt about slavery.  They were fighting out of obligation, loyalty, and for the defense of their home state.  But they were on the wrong side of history.  This war was anything but glorious.

        I have stated my Southern credentials to say this:  there is no place in civil society for symbols of hatred and violence and the Confederate flag is one of the most reprehensible symbols of hatred today.  Those who claim it represents their Southern heritage are simply delusional.  It doesn’t represent my heritage.  It’s not the flag that Alabama or North Carolina soldiers fought under.  It was the battle flag of Northern Virginia that was only used at the very end of the war.  This flag should have been retired when the war ended, but it was high-jacked by the Klu Klux Klan and later became the ugly symbol of those who were opposed the civil rights movement.  Now it represents White Supremacy.  The flag belongs in a museum, not in the public arena. 

        I shudder to think what would have happened if the south had actually won the war.  How long would the inhumane and ungodly practice of slavery have continued?  I am thankful that it was a “lost cause.”   Government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the face of the earth—thanks be to God.  It took several generations for healing to take place, but today we are all thankful we are a United States of America, that we are “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

        When Robert E. Lee died at his request there were no Confederate flags at his funeral.  He wrote, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.”  Over 150 years later there are those who continue to keep open the sores of war and hatred.  It is time, past time, to remove the Confederate flags once and for all.  The Apostle John wrote, “He who does not love his brother cannot love God.” (1 John 4: 20)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Still Pondering One of Life's Unanswered Questions


It was the first day of 5th grade and the venerable Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, had us all excited. “This will be a year of discovery!” she announced with great fanfare.  “If you take a pound of nails and a pound of feathers and drop them out of this window, which will hit the ground first?”

Immediately we said, “The nails!”  But then, “Wait, she said a pound of feathers.  A pound of feathers will be a lot bigger than a pound of nails.  Maybe they will hit the ground at same time, maybe not.”

As the class enthusiastically debated the question, Miss Thompson called for quiet.  “As I said, this will be a year of discovery and that will be just one of the many exciting experiments we will conduct this year.” 

It was a great first day of school.   We couldn’t wait to run home and tell our parents about all of the amazing truths we would discover in the 5th grade.  The problem was, it never happened.  We never learned about those feathers and nails.  We didn’t conduct any exciting experiments.  The 5th grade proved to be tedious, laborious, and boring.  Some of the parents were saying Miss Thompson was too old to be teaching.  It was time for her to step down.  And that is exactly what she did, well sort of. . .

The day after school ended in May, the aged Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, graduated to that great classroom in the sky.  Then we all felt terrible about all of those things we had said about her.  Those same parents who said she was too old were now full of sympathy.  “It’s no wonder she couldn’t do much,” they said.  “She was sick, very sick.  We just didn’t know.”  

The 6th grade was a lot better and as the school year came to a close, we prepared for our 6th grade graduation, which was a really big deal in our little town.  We practiced for weeks, marching into the storied old auditorium with its sloping floor and old wooden seats with the decorative metal frames.  Our graduation song was Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain.” 

On graduation day with the hot auditorium packed with parents dressed in their Sunday finest and little brothers and sisters anxious for it to end, we marched in our caps and gowns and sang our theme song with gusto.  Then Mr. Gilbert, our crotchety old principal who had apparently appointed himself to be the keynote speaker, stood before the packed assembly with his best suit, narrow tie and wingtip shoes, while everyone used their programs to fan for air.

It had been old Mr. Gilbert who had marched us into that same auditorium in the 2nd grade to soberly tell us that John Glenn was about to burn up in space (he didn’t) and in the 4th grade to somberly announce that President Kennedy had been shot and killed (he had).  But on this day he arduously invoked the memory of Miss Thompson, our dearly departed 5th grade teacher, bless her dear heart.  He dramatically intoned that we were her last class, the final students to hear her voice.  Directing his attention to the fanning parents he caustically stated that she had many more years of teaching left undone.  There were many more lessons she should have taught and many more students she should have guided.  But the terrible stress she was under (he paused to let that sink in) certainly hastened her celestial commencement. 

Having thoroughly scolded the parents, he then directed his harangue at us—the 6th grade graduates.  Thinking he was Abraham Lincoln he intoned, “You must be dedicated to that great task remaining before you.  You must give increased devotion to that cause for which she gave her last full measure of devotion.  You must climb every mountain and ford every stream, follow every rainbow until you find your dream.  Miss Thompson’s legacy is dependent on you!”  We rose to our feet in animated applause, grateful that the jeremiad was finally over. 

I have heard many graduation speeches since then, most of the words long forgotten.  But I often think about Mr. Gilbert’s brusque graduation address and have wondered how in the world I could climb every mountain if Miss Thompson never answered the question, “If you took a pound of nails and a pound of feathers . . .” Bless her dear heart!
                                                               

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Old Man Clemmons


Old Man Clemmons was feared by every child in town. The stories of his screeching screams and bizarre behavior were scarier than ghost stories, because we all knew they were true.

I was one of the few children who had actually encountered Mr. Clemmons, who lived next door to my grandmother. One afternoon we were playing baseball in her back yard when the ball landed in Mr. Clemmons’ flower bed. I was elected to go and retrieve the ball. I should have been concerned when all of the other children took cover in the shrubbery beside my grandmother’s house. I had just stepped into the flower bed when I heard the high-pitched scream. “Get out of my yard!”

He was standing on the front porch, his face red with anger, his words dripping with venomous rage. He was a short man with a square face and wire-framed glasses. Forgetting about the baseball, I ran away as fast as I could. Mr. Clemmons must have seen the other children hiding in the shrubbery because the last thing I heard behind me was a wailing scream, “All of you kids! Leave me alone!”

Out of breath and grateful that we had all survived, the neighborhood children regrouped at my house. It was then that one of the Chunn boys revealed the deep, dark secret that none of us wanted to hear. “You’re lucky,” he told me. “That old guy is a madman. At least he screamed and ran you off, because he has been known to capture kids and hold them prisoner.”

We were all terrified at this revelation. Finally, someone had the courage to ask the question that we feared would be answered, “What does he do with them?”

“He has a laboratory in his cellar,” the Chunn boy told us. “We think he runs experiments on kids. One thing I do know is that whenever a kid has been captured, you never hear from him again.”

A few weeks later I was at my grandmother’s house when, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a siren and the rotating red light that was flashing through the room. I looked out the window and saw an ambulance and a police car at Mr. Clemmons’ house. I raised the window and heard a terrifying scream. I found my grandmother on the front porch talking to some neighbors who had gathered in the yard. I heard someone say they were giving him morphine to calm him down. “You know he has a steel plate in his head,” somebody said.

I kept my distance from the Clemmons’ house. But one day when I was older, my grandmother asked me to do the unthinkable. “Mr. Clemmons needs somebody to mow his yard,” she said. He would not allow a power mower. I had to use a rusty old push mower, and it took me half a day to complete the job. When I was finished he walked out of the house and, not saying a word, took a wallet out of his pocket that was covered with rubber bands. With trembling hands he pulled out three, $1 bills. Not a thank you or job well done — just three, measly dollars for a half-day of hard labor.

I mowed his yard for a few years and then found a decent job when I started high school. As graduation neared, everyone was talking about Vietnam. Some of our classmates had been killed, others injured. One day a visitor came to school and talked to us about what it means to risk your life in the service of your country. He told us about a man who lived in our town, a decorated war veteran, he said. “This man was gassed and critically injured by shrapnel in the First World War. A steel plate was placed in his head, but not a day goes by that he does not suffer. He is often in intense pain. He can’t stand any noise, not even the sound of a power mower. He will suffer for the rest of his life because of his injuries. But you and I are free because of him. He is a genuine hero. We should all be grateful for his sacrifice.” I looked for the Chunn boy but couldn’t find him. Then I looked at myself and felt ashamed.

Thank you Mr. Clemmons for the great sacrifice you gave for our country. As we approach Memorial Day, let us not only remember those who died, but those whose lives were traumatically and irrevocably changed because of war. We will be forever grateful.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

You Don't Need A SmartPhone To Connect With God


      The Apostle Paul knew how to connect with people.  He would go where the people were to share the good news and in the first century, this was most often the town square.  Town squares were the marketplaces and the social gathering places in times past.  This is where conversations happened, ideas were exchanged and debated, and networking took place.  For Paul who was “called to be an Apostle and set apart for good news” (Romans 1: 1) the town square became his favorite forum, perhaps most famously the Areopagas in Athens. 

        Town squares are no longer the center of social discourse and debate.  Social media is where people are gathering, debating, discussing ideas and connecting with others.  If you want to be relevant in today’s world you need to be connected through social media. 

Social media is no longer a fad; it is established in our culture.  We are learning that social media is the best way to share news about our church family.  The new “front door” to the church is through social media and the web.  The Apostle Paul would be all over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  He wrote: “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9: 22)  Used effectively, social media can be a positive and powerful channel for sharing the good news of Jesus.  But, there is a downside.

For many, social media is not social at all.  In fact, studies are revealing that the more time people spend on social media, the more isolated, lonely, and depressed they tend to be.  It’s not difficult to see why this is true.  Just look around the next time you are in a restaurant or a public place and see how many people are completely absorbed in their smartphones.  I have observed families who are eating together, but no one is talking to each other; mother, father, teenagers, even small children are lost in their own worlds glued to their phones. 

I will be the first to confess that I am addicted to my phone.  The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check for messages and emails.  Then I read the news on several different sites including The Dispatch, look at the weather, check the baseball scores, and occasionally I will open Facebook to see what everyone else is doing.  I can also use my phone to listen to music and audio books, make hotel and air reservations, monitor how far I walked during the day, check the exchange rate between the dollar and the Euro, and in one of my favorite apps, check to see if the moon is waxing or waning!  And, oh yes I almost forgot—I can actually make phone calls!  Smartphones have changed the way we live, but we must be careful that they do not control us or isolate us, and that is what is happening with too many people.  

When God created the heavens and the earth he rested on the seventh day.  He also established a Sabbath day because he knew that a day of rest, a time to reconnect with God, to step back and reflect, meditate and worship was essential to the well being of humankind.   But by Jesus’ day the Sabbath had become a day of duty and obligation.  It was controlling and demanding rather than renewing and liberating.   Jesus brought it all into focus when he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.”  (Mark 2: 27 CEB)

Back when the internet was first created (Al Gore, right?); it was designed to be a powerful tool to serve humanity.  This has proven to be true many times over and the advent of social media has only magnified its power.  But when social media becomes addictive and controlling, when families don’t talk to each other because they are lost in their Facebook worlds, when social skills are diminished because of social media, and when we don’t have time to thank God because we are too busy thanking others for “liking” our posts, it is time for a Sabbath. 

You don’t need a smartphone to be connected with God.  In fact, you can connect much better with God without your device.  He knows what you are thinking without you even having to post it.  Try it.  You will be surprised what you have been missing. 

                                                       










Thursday, April 13, 2017

Christ Is Risen! There Is Good News To Share!


Good news, oh, the chariot's coming

Good news, the chariot's coming,

Yeah, I don't want to be behind. (Spiritual)

Dear sisters and brothers, this is one happy preacher writing this story. Why? Because good news is coming soon! It's coming in the morning! Easter Sunday morning!

Sunday morning I will stand before the faithful, and a few who haven't been so faithful, and announce: "I have good news to share!" The economy is still hurting, health insurance is unaffordable, the world seems to be on the brink of war, but I have good news to share. In spite of sickness, tragedy, natural disasters and suffering, I have good news to share. The world is full of evil and hatred, wars continue to escalate, terrorism lurks in the shadows, but I have good news to share. The good news will reverberate from coast to coast, nation to nation, ocean to ocean, and continent to continent. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

I've always been excited about Easter. One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting with my dad on Easter Sunday on a folding chair on the front porch of the sanctuary because there was no more room inside. I vividly remember the bright Easter sun, the singing birds and the blooming flowers announcing the good, glad, glorious news of the resurrection much more powerfully and creatively than our pastor; bless his dear heart, who was droning away inside the building.

When I was called to my first church I learned that I would not be preaching on Easter Sunday. Dear Miss Louise, bless her dear heart, she had been the music director at our church since the Reformation.  She informed me that Easter Sunday was reserved for the annual Easter cantata. In the spirit of the Reformation I started to protest, but she, in the spirit of the Inquisition, told me that all of those people who came to church on Easter didn't want to be bored with a silly sermon. No sir! It was an Easter cantata they wanted and an Easter cantata they would get.

I cried that Easter Sunday. People thought I was moved by the cantata, but I was crying because I thought I would have to move in order to preach an Easter sermon. But the good Lord must have heard my cries because a couple of years later he moved Miss Louise. Bless her dear heart, he sent the chariot for her and I knew that good news was coming.

For my first Easter sermon I went out and bought a stunning, three-piece polyester light blue suit with matching patent leather blue shoes that shined so much you could see yourself in the reflection. I worked up a mighty fine Easter sermon and generously applied the Old Spice to drown out the Easter lilies and some hair tonic to doctor up my hair. (The light blue suit, the blue shoes, the sermon, and my hair have all disappeared, but I think I still have the Old Spice.)

I was so excited I barely slept Saturday night, but the next morning, Easter Sunday, I stood in the pulpit looking like an Easter egg and smelling like a barber shop, but just as happy as I could be. I couldn't tell you what I said, but I had good news to share.

As people sniffed the air and looked quizzically at my blue outfit, they told me it was a good sermon. After locking all the doors to the church I walked out into the bright Easter sun, heard the birds singing, saw the flowers blooming and I realized that all creation was announcing the good, glad, glorious news of the resurrection much more powerfully and creatively than I ever could, bless my dear heart.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! That's good news to share!




Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Century After His Birth A Calling Is Fulfilled


Harry M. Philpott was born 100 years ago on May 7, 1917, in Bassett, Virgnia.  Two years later his father purchased a bankrupt furniture plant and moved the family to Lexington, North Carolina.  United Furniture became a thriving industry and the Philpott family started a legacy of community involvement and service.  As the six Philpott sons grew up in the Lexington City Schools and the First Baptist Church, they all seemed destined to follow in their father’s footsteps in the furniture industry.  But in 1935, 18 year-old Harry discovered a different destiny.  He heard the voice of God calling him to be his prophet and in September, 1935, Harry Philpott was licensed to preach the Gospel by the First Baptist Church of Lexington, NC.

        He started to live out his calling as a Navy Chaplain in the Second World War.  After the war he earned his Ph.D. at Yale Divinity School where he became a Teaching Fellow for Dr. Luther Weigle, a preeminent Biblical scholar who was the lead translator for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Harry Philpott participated in the work of the translation, or in his words, “I did most of the grunt work.” 

        His calling took him into the educational arena and in 1965, he became the President of Auburn University in the sleepy little town of Auburn, Alabama.  A year before he came to Auburn, Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from enrolling.  Only after a federal order enforced by the National Guard did George Wallace stand down. 

        No such theatrics were necessary at the “Loveliest Village on the Plains.”   While the University of Alabama was integrated by a federal mandate, Auburn University was integrated by Harry Philpott.  During his tenure, the entire university including athletics became fully integrated.  For the one who heard the voice of God calling him at the age of 18, this was a matter of righteousness and justice.  It was simply the right thing to do.

        Dr. Philpott’s passionate conviction for justice and equality was not limited to his professional arena.  The new President who grew up in First Baptist Church in Lexington, NC became a member of the First Baptist Church in Auburn.  As a typical Baptist church in the deep south, the congregation was all white and women were excluded from ordained leadership.  It was Harry Philpott who led his church to change.

        On March 19 our church called the first female minister in the 138 year history of our congregation.  When Meagan Smith was asked by one of our members if she felt any pressure being a female minister, she responded by saying that it was not until she went to seminary that she realized many Baptist churches limited the role of women.  She explained that she grew up in a church with several female ministers as wonderful role models.  That church was First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama.

        When I called the pastor in Auburn to talk about Meagan, I asked him if he knew of Harry Philpott.  “Harry Philpott!” he exclaimed.  “He is the patron saint of this church.”  He went on to tell me that the church was open and progressive primarily because of the influence of Dr. Philpott. 

        Growing up in First Baptist Auburn, Meagan was influenced by a wonderful couple, Virgil and Donna Starks.  Virgil was a Sunday School teacher, they were youth leaders, and Meagan was close to their family.  The Starks are African-American.  If not for Harry Philpott, they would not have been in Meagan’s church.  Virgil Starks was also my brother’s best friend, but that’s another story for another day!

        First Baptist Church of Lexington was full of great joy and excitement on March 19.  Our congregation unanimously and enthusiastically welcomed Meagan into our family.  We have been searching for a new minister for a year.  Little did we realize that this calling actually started one hundred years ago when a baby boy was born in Bassett, Virginia. 

        “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I called you to be my prophet.”     Jeremiah 1: 5

                                                             


Monday, March 20, 2017

Reach for the Stars


One of my favorite stories from Lexington’s history is about an amazing group of businessmen who dared to reach for the stars with a bold vision over 100 years ago. In spite of the fact Lexington was strategically located on the main line of the Southern Railroad; it remained a sleepy little hamlet at the turn of the 20th century with Wenonah Mills being the only major industry. (Dixie Furniture started in 1901.) In 1909 the town learned that a new railroad was being constructed, the Winston-Salem Southbound that would intersect with the mighty Southern precisely in Lexington. Town leaders knew this was a golden opportunity, but it would take more than two railroads to attract new industry. It would take a great vision and bold dreams.

The Lexington Board of Trade was established and the leaders immediately started to dream. They planned a lavish banquet at the March Hotel, inviting potential business partners across the state and region, to promote Lexington as a town of progress and promise. Those important visitors probably didn’t expect a great deal from this little town, so they must have been shocked at what they experienced.

Rather than simply promoting Lexington as a regional center of commerce and trade, the town business leaders had a much more expansive vision. Decades before the Internet, television, or even radio, they promoted Lexington as a city that was destined to become an “international center of business and trade.” They even planned an international menu for the banquet that included Cuban cigars. The main course was, naturally, barbecue — three types of barbecue: pork, beef, and opossum! (I’m not joking! They served up opossum to those swashbuckling tycoons.)

Did Lexington become an international center of trade? No, not even close. They probably should have left off the opossum, but what did happen changed the course of our town for the greater part of the 20th century. Because the visionary leaders of Lexington dared to reach for the stars, business and industry more than doubled over the next few years. The difference was not so much convincing others that Lexington would be a great place to locate a business, but it was the leaders convincing themselves that Lexington was an exceptional place to work and call home.DefaultsDone

Two years after the international banquet at the March Hotel one of Lexington’s business leaders who dared to reach for the stars was in New York City. He was bragging about his hometown and how much he loved Lexington. A textile manufacturer overheard the conversation. He had always wanted to have a mill in the South and the more he heard, the more Lexington sounded like the perfect place. He introduced himself to the Lexington man and told him how impressed he was with what he had heard. By the time the two men had finished talking, Mr. Erlanger had decided that Lexington, North Carolina, would be a place he would like to call home. Erlanger Mills opened in 1914 and played a significant role in Lexington for the rest of the century.

The scripture reminds us that where there is no vision the people perish. Our forefathers had a grand vision for their hometown. My prayer is that we will also reach for the stars and dream great dreams for our hometown. Just make sure we leave the opossum out of it.


Underground Church is not a game in many places in the world


There was subversive activity at the YMCA one Sunday night in February involving almost 75 Lexington teenagers. It took place after dark, after the Y had closed for the evening. The youths were sneaking around the darkened Y searching for a secret meeting place. Guards were on duty. Some of the youths were stopped and questioned. Some were escorted to prison. The ones who did make it to the secret meeting place waited in silence, not knowing who would find them. Finally, the teenagers who had been arrested were brought in to join their fellow trespassers. It was a night that they will never forget.

The events at the Y that Sunday were staged. Six downtown youth groups joined forces to participate in “Underground Church.” The youths are told that they are living in a country where Christianity is illegal, but there is an underground church movement called the Ichthys Society. Ichthys is the Greek word for fish. The fish symbol was used by Roman Christians to identify believers in the persecution of the church.

We had volunteers patrolling the Y as guards. They would stop and question the teenagers and check their passes that contained the figure of a fish. Some of the passes were authentic and some were counterfeit. A counterfeit pass would result in imprisonment. If one stated publically they were a Christian, they would go to jail. A number of the youths were incarcerated. It goes without saying that these young people have a new appreciation for freedom of religion.

While “Underground Church” was a game last week at the Y, this is real life for many Christians in today’s world. There are many places where Christians are persecuted, dispossessed, tortured, and killed because of their faith. North Korean Christians must hide their faith at all times. Just owning a Bible in North Korea is grounds for execution or deportment to a harsh labor camp. Despite this oppression, Christianity is growing and believers gather to sing silent hymns in cramped basements and crumbling buildings.

Radical Islamists in Somalia have stated that they want to purge the nation of all Christians. People suspected of following Jesus are likely to be killed on the spot. Over 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since the start of their civil war. The ones remaining are tortured and some have been executed. In Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and dozens of other nations “Underground Church” is not a game, but a dangerous way of life.

We are blessed to live in a land of religious freedom. Our founding fathers had the wisdom to guarantee every expression of religious faith. While Christianity has always been the predominate faith in the United States, we must be careful not to make Christianity the “favored religion.” Protecting the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and those who claim no religion is vital to protecting our own. Once one faith is favored, the door is open for the favored ones to degrade and intimidate the others. All faiths must be protected equally and no one faith should be elevated over the others.

Following Jesus was never supposed to be easy. Persecution was a way of life for the early believers. Gathering for worship is as easy today as gathering for a civic meeting or a ball game. Perhaps that is why we take our faith so casually — because we risk nothing to practice it. We wanted to remind our teenagers that gathering for worship is a sacred privilege that many in the world don’t know. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”




Thursday, February 9, 2017

Put Your Jesus Glasses On When Interpreting Scripture


        There was a big picture of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon with the earth in the background hanging behind his desk.  He was proud of that picture and he should have been, because he helped put him there.  He was an engineer with NASA back in its heyday, back when they were fully funded, fully staffed, and working day and night  to achieve President Kennedy’s dream of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  They succeeded, too, as the picture behind Tom’s desk bore witness.

        After the moon landings, NASA slowed down.  The funding was cut.  Public support wavered.  Many of the most dedicated NASA employees found themselves without a job, including Tom.  He moved to North Carolina, to his wife’s hometown, and became a member of the church I was serving as pastor.   That is why I was sitting in his office one day, looking with admiration at the picture of Neil Armstrong, trying to find something pleasant while Tom lectured me on the Bible. 

        “When I worked for NASA,” he said pointing to the picture, “everything we did was according to the book.”  We had a manual for everything, for every possible situation, for every foreseeable scenario.  There was a very deliberate, intentional, detailed protocol for every move we made.”

        Then he glared at me and asked, “How do you think we put a man on the moon?”  I didn’t answer.  I knew he was about to tell me.  “We followed the manual to the letter of the law!” he practically screamed as he pointed his finger at me.  And then he added, “And that is the only way to interpret Scripture.  The Bible is our manual and we are to follow it to the letter of the law!”

        There was no point trying to discuss the issue with Tom.  His mind was made up.  He had all the answers.  Not long after that lecture he left my church because, “I didn’t believe the Bible.” 

        I know a lot of people who interpret the Bible just like Tom.  I read their letters to the Editor.  They use this misguided approach to judge and condemn people, to discriminate against those who are not living according to their standards, and to divide and demean others with the harsh and caustic language of hatred.  They isolate certain passages of Scripture and use the Bible as a battering ram to slam those who disagree into humble submission. 

        The Bible is not a fixed manual.  The Bible is the living, dynamic Word of God.  It is alive and fluid.  Interpreting Scripture is hard work; it is not simple and straightforward, it is a spiritual exercise.  I believe that Scripture is Divinely inspired and that inspiration guides the interpreter just as it guided the writers.  And I believe you should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. 

As a Christian, I have a very intentional focus when I approach Scripture.  I seek to interpret Scripture through the eyes of Jesus.  When I read something that is judgmental, harsh, or divisive, I put on my Jesus glasses.  I filter what I read through the witness of Jesus, through his example of love, forgiveness, and grace.  When I see a Scripture passage that appears to condemn someone, I put on my Jesus glasses and see that individual as a child of God and as a person of worth.

        I learn that I am a sinner in interpreting Scripture and I have fallen short of the glory of God.  But then I put on my Jesus glasses and see that it was for sinners like me that Christ died, that he has washed all my sins away and I am a new creation in Christ!  

        There is too much harsh, critical, discriminatory, and hateful language in our world today.  Those of us who follow the Christ need to be to put on our Jesus glasses and turn the rhetoric of division into the promise of reconciliation and grace.  Saint Francis certainly had on his Jesus glasses when he wrote, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”  May we go and do likewise.
                                                               

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent is the Season to let our Light Shine


        Have you noticed?  Little by little, slowly but surely, the darkness continues to erode the light.  The days are getting shorter.  We didn’t notice at first.  Not back in late June when daylight would greet us when we first opened our eyes from the night’s rest.  But that is when it started and for the next three weeks it will continue.  There will be more and more darkness until December 22 when the light begins to push back and reverse the darkness.

        The church anticipates the reversal of the darkness through the season of Advent.  Many years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Advent.  I argued that the dominant theme of Advent is hope.  As we recall the stirring prophecies of swords being beaten into plowshares, of peace on earth, and righteous and justice for all people, we focus on the not yet as we yearn for a better world for all of God’s children.  Hope is a contradiction of the present, a belief that our best days are still to come.         

        Looking back I realize that I missed something.  Advent may be defined by hope but it is expressed with light.  We light candles.  We place lights on our Christmas trees and have elaborate outdoor light displays.  Advent is the season of hope and light.  The church doesn’t run from the darkness, it invades the darkness with degrees of light.

        The Apostle John, in his thunderous theological treatise on the Incarnation, described this lofty, mysterious, unexplainable reality with a simple metaphor:  “The light shines in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it.”  (John 1: 5)

        There is a reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 and it is not because Jesus was born on this day.  (Sorry about that—Jesus was probably born in the springtime when shepherds would be abiding in the fields)  In the old Julian calendar, December 25 was the winter solstice, the day the light started to reverse the onslaught of darkness.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus who is the “light of the world” on the day the light begins to reclaim the darkness!

        One December Sunday in 1956 Mrs. Frances Spencer walked into the sanctuary of her church in Danville, Virginia, and could not believe what she was seeing.  There was a Christmas tree!  A Christmas tree with colored lights, Santa Claus ornaments, and jingle bells!  In the church, no less!   Her first reaction was to protest, to complain that this is exactly what is wrong with Christmas.  Christmas is about Jesus, not Santa Claus.  This tree represented the secular world.  It had no place in the sacred house of worship.  But her righteous indignation was soon replaced with divine inspiration.  Rather than condemn, rather than judge, rather than complain, Mrs. Spencer was led to transform what she perceived as darkness into a glorious light. 

        She asked her minister if she could have the privilege of decorating the Christmas tree the next year.  He readily agreed and over the course of the year she created a number of handmade ornaments that proclaimed the true meaning of Christmas.  She replaced the colored lights with white lights to represent Christ as the light of the world.  She named her ornaments “Chrismons” which means a monogram of Christ.  Each Chrismon was designed to represent Christ and the message of God’s love.  This is how the Chrismon tree was born and this Advent many churches in Lexington and Davidson County have beautiful Chrismon trees in their sanctuaries to proclaim the true meaning of Christmas, the light that shines in the darkness. 

        Mrs. Spencer not only left us with a great tradition, but a powerful example of how we confront the darkness of our world.  We are not called to condemn the darkness but to transform it.  Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” With acts of mercy and grace we can drive out the darkness.  We can feed the hungry, provide Christmas gifts for deserving children, and reach out to the lonely and the depressed.  Let’s do more than turn on the lights this Advent season, let us become the light of Christ for a world of darkness.  For when the light shines in the darkness, the darkness can never overcome it!