Greatest Love Story Ever Told

greatest love storyJesus did his best preaching when he told a story, a parable. Jesus simply told a story, usually taken from the ordinary, everyday experience of life to reveal something extraordinary about who our God is and how much our God loves us. So, at this time, I would like to attempt to do the same.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman who loved each other very much were married (by the way, this is a true story, based on a real couple I know). They shared a wonderful life together.  They lived out their marriage covenant in a way that many couples do not duplicate.  They were completely faithful to one another in every way.  They were never abusive to one another, and neither one ever held any grudges or let selfish ambition come between them.

The couple had been married for nearly thirty-years, when the husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. After several unsuccessful brain surgeries to control the progression of his disease, he was left in a catatonic state and had to be admitted to a nursing home. Unable to lift his head, he was spoon-fed and cared for as if he were an infant.  On most days, there was no way to tell if he even knew he was in the world.

Yet, this loving, compassionate wife, who promised to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death shall part them, remained very faithful.  A day never went by when she did not visit the nursing home to make sure his needs were being met, letting him know in the best way she can that she will always remain by his side.  And oftentimes, she made his favorite dishes at home: strawberry shortcake, always using pound cake as he liked it, and sometimes a pecan pie.  She would then wrap the dessert up and bring it to the nursing home, where she would place one hand under his chin, lift his head and feed him the cake or pie with the other hand.

I have often thought how wonderful it would be to know that if one day my health fails me, and I wind up in a similar situation, someone will be there for me, to not only check on me daily, to make sure I am treated well, my needs are being met, to stay by my side, but also to prepare my favorite dishes, which just so happens to be strawberry shortcake and pecan pie, hold my chin, lift my head, and feed me.

This is who I believe our God is.  God is a loving spouse who is living out a covenant with us, not only promising to be faithful, to stay by our side, but there at our side, in our weakest moments, takes a hold of our chin, lifts our heads and feeds us pie, a peace beyond understanding.

But you know something. There is something amiss in this parable.  There is something wrong, something missing.  For when we really think about it, as wonderful as this parable is, we realize that it simply fails to do the greatest story ever told appropriate justice.  Especially when we consider that unlike the husband in this parable, we have not always been faithful to our God; when we consider our constant betrayals and our continuous denials. When we consider that when God offered us the very best gift God had to offer, the gift of God’s self, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst we had to offer, the cross.  But remaining faithful, empowered by pure, unconditional love, God summoned the will to resurrect this gift and give him right back to the undeserving ones who killed him, making eternal life possible for all.

Perhaps a more appropriate parable would go something like this:

Once upon a time, a man and a woman who loved each other very much were married. However, they did not share such a wonderful life together. From the very beginning, the husband had a problem with alcohol, which grew as time went on. Although the woman remained true to her marriage covenant, he did not. He had numerous affairs.  He usually blamed the alcohol, but on occasions he would tell his wife that his running around was her fault. He simply did not find her as attractive as he once did.

Family and friends, even her pastor, rightfully tried to persuade the woman to leave the loser. But they did so in vain. She said repeatedly that she promised to remain faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death shall part them, and she intended to do just that. And this husband was not always bad. She said, “At times, when he is sober, he could be a perfect gentleman, always apologizing for his actions. He can even be attentive to my needs.”

But as time went on, those good times became fewer and further apart. The abuse, which had in the past always been verbal and mental, turned into physical abuse.  It got to a point when the woman could hardly remember a day when he was sober and when he did not strike her.

One day, in a drunken rage, he was yelling and screaming for his supper. As the wife, who had been nursing a broken jaw from a previous fight, was preparing it as fast as she could, he hurled abusive insults at her and struck her again on the side of her face that was still swollen.

She said, “Stop it. Please stop it.  Look at yourself. You are not the man that I married. Look what you have let alcohol do to you. You don’t know what you are doing.  Please, please get some help.  Please. Don’t you know that I still love you?”

Interpreting her desperate pleas as being combative and disrespectful, he threatened to kill her if she did not shut up.

She continued, “Please, please, I love you, I really do love you.”

He stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the door. She went into the den, dropped face first into a pillow on the sofa and began to cry.  Weeping would be more accurate.  He came into a den with a pistol, jumped on top of her and placed it against her head. She cried:  “Please no. I love you, I love you.”

“I swear to God if you don’t shut up and fix my supper I will blow your head off.” Somehow she managed to turn around and place both of her hands on the pistol. As they struggled, the gun went off.  The husband fell to the floor, bleeding from the head.

But the sorry sod was too mean to die. However, he had to be placed in a nursing home, for he was left in a catatonic state, unable to lift even his head. He had to been spoon-fed and taken care of like an infant. On most days, there was no way to tell if he even knew he was in the world.

And yet, this wife, who promised to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death should part them, remains faithful to this very day. A day does not go by when she does not visit the nursing home to make sure his needs are being met. Letting him know the best way she can that she will always remain by his side. And oftentimes she makes his favorite dishes at home: chocolate cake and coconut pie. She wraps it up and bring it to the nursing home, where she will hold his chin with one hand, lift his head and feed him with the other.

Of course, unlike the first parable this one is not based on any man or woman I know. For no one could possibly have so much compassion, be so forgiving, so loving, so patient, so merciful, yet so offensive. No one loves with such socially unacceptable grace, no one except God, as revealed to us in the greatest love story ever told.

For when God offered us God’s very best, we nailed it to a tree.  And then somehow, some miraculous way, through the power of the resurrection, born out of pure love, God fed us and continues to feed us pie.

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Baptized into a Living Hope

two rainbows1 Peter 1:3-9 NRSV

They were yearning for the good old days—days when their lives were far less chaotic, days when their lives had some sense of routine, normalcy.  They had been through so much; overcome so many storms.  It was no way they could handle anymore.  At the ends of their ropes, they had simply had enough.

There they were, tired and broken.  No lights, no power, no heat. As soon as they half-way recovered from one storm, another storm was almost on top of them.

With the angry Red Sea before them and Pharaoh’s Army behind them, they cried out to Moses, “We would have been better off dying as slaves in Egypt than out here in the wilderness.  At least they had fine cemeteries back in Egypt to lay our tired, broken bodies.  Out here, we have nothing!”

They continued: “Moses, we can’t take it anymore.  We can’t handle any more stress.  We can’t face another storm.  Moses, we can’t take another step.  We can’t go on any further.  We can’t fight another fight.”

It is then that Moses gives them the good news.  I believe it is one of the most comforting verses in the Old Testament.  To all the people who could not go any further, who had reached the end of their ropes, he said: “You don’t have to take another step.  All you have to do is be still, and the Lord, the Lord will fight for you.” 

And fight the Lord did, making a pathway through their storm, through the middle of the sea.  But God did not stop there. That’s what’s so great about our God.  Our God never stops there.  God then provided the Israelites with an all-you-can-eat buffet of quail and bread from heaven, even cool, fresh water from a rock.  And in their dark, cold world, God said to them, “I will be your light.  I will be as a pillar of fire leading you through this storm.”

This is of course what we call the Exodus story—the story of God providing a way when people thought there was no way, the story of a God not only granting salvation and life, but granting it abundantly.  It is THE story of the Old Testament.  It is the one story of the Old Testament that best describes how our God works in this world.  There is something built right into the very nature of God to create something very good out of something very bad, and abundantly so.

It should not surprise us then that the Exodus story of the Old Testament directly corresponds with the THE story of the New Testament—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The story of God making a way, when there was no way, the story of God not only granting life, but granting it abundantly, the story in the New Testament that best describes how our God works in this world—creating and recreating, transforming and resurrecting.    

When wine gives out at a party, God not only turns water into a little bit of wine for one or two people.  God makes 180 gallons of wine for everyone.  When night is falling on a hungry multitude, God not only feeds 5,000 people, God feeds 5,000 people with an abundance left over.  When angry, sinful people crucified Jesus, God not only resurrected him to reign in heaven.  No, God didn’t stop there.  God resurrected him and gave him back to the very same people who killed him.  And promises that one day, they too will be resurrected.

And the good news is that this New Testament story, this story of resurrection, which in a way is a culmination of the great Exodus story, is not just a story or an event in history to remember, and it is not merely an event in our future we look forward to, it is an event to be lived in the present.  In 1 Peter we read, that God has given us a new birth, we have been baptized into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   

During this week’s winter storm, the second storm to cripple the South in four weeks, I was listening to the radio as people were calling in reporting damage, snow or ice accumulations, and sharing how they were coping. I don’t believe I will ever forget one woman who called in from South Carolina.  She said that a tree came down on her carport crushing her car and her husband’s truck.  And another tree is leaning on the back of the house.  She said, “We made a small pathway outside the back door so we can get outside.” 

The man on the radio asked her, “Do you have any place to go?  Can you go over to a friend or relative’s house?”

She said, “No, but we’re fine.  We have each other and the Lord is good.  I don’t have any power.  But thankfully my house has got a gas stove. And we have wood for the fireplace.  And I just made us a big ol’ pot of chicken ‘n dumplin’s!”

That is when the man on the radio said, “That’s one thing about us Southerners.  Our power can be knocked out.  Our cars destroyed.  Trees on the house.  Can’t get out the front door.  But, one thing’s for sure, we’re going to eat and we’re going to eat good!”

I laughed.  For I had been through enough hurricanes to know that was true.  I thought, “Yes, there’s probably no other place in a world where people go through a natural disaster and gain weight!”  However, I believe that radio jockey missed something else that was in that woman’s voice.

When that woman said, “The Lord is good.”  She was not referring to God being good raising Jesus from the dead in the past.  And she was not looking forward to one day in the future God being good and resurrecting her. She was talking about God being good in the present. In the midst of her storm, she had found a way when there was no way. She was taking a bad situation and making something very good come from it. She was living the hope of the resurrection, today.

This is especially good news for many of us.  For the snow and ice this week are just the least of our troubles.  We face so many storms. Crime seems be up as just in the past weeks we have seen both Southern Bank and Zippy’s robbed. And then there are the storms of sickness, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases—it’s everywhere we turn.  Someone we love is either diagnosed with something dreadful, or someone we love passes away.

And, at the ends of ropes, we feel like we cannot take another step. We cannot go any further. The good news is, that we don’t have to. God will fight for us right now, here in the present, and will make a way when it seems to be no way. God is here now, resurrecting and recreating and restoring filling us with the hope that although we cannot go back to the good old days, before the storm, before the diagnoses, before the accident, we can go forward with God into good new days.

 

Another man called into the radio station from Georgia this week to report that the sun was starting to peak through the clouds. And then he said, “And would you believe that there are two great big rainbows in the sky over the field behind my house!”

The radio jockey acted surprised, “really?” he said, “Two rainbows? How about that!”

But, from what we know about our God, none of us should have been surprised. Because that is just the way our God works.  God never stops at just one rainbow.

Benji, Anna, Johnathan and Jenny, your baptisms this morning, you rising up out of the water symbolize that no matter what storms come your way, you will always rise up. For God is going to be there, not to just remind you of something God did in the past–resurrecting Jesus, or something God is going to do in the future–resurrecting you.  God is going to be with you helping you live the resurrection in the present.  In the middle of your storm, there will always be a rainbow, and there is a good chance there may even be more than one.  

Hope in the Winter Storms

two rainbows

Excerpt from “Baptized into a Living Hope” to be posted 2-26-14.

During the second winter storm to cripple the South in less than a month, I was listening to the radio as people were calling in to report ice and snow accumulations, damage and power outages.

One man called into the radio station from Georgia to report that the sun was starting to peak through the clouds. Then he said, “And would you believe that there are two great big rainbows in the sky over the field behind my house!”

The radio jockey acted surprised, “Really?” he said, “Two rainbows? How about that!”

But, from what we know about our God, none of us should have been surprised. Because that is just the way our God always works.

When it comes to giving hope in the midst of the storms of life, God never stops at just one rainbow.

Walter and Frances – A Love Story

Love story

Walter and Frances Blackley were married on the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day, February 13, 1945. They were married for 58 years. In February 2003, they both passed away, ten days apart, around Valentine’s Day. So each time Valentine’s Day rolls around, I remember them and their wonderful love story. The following are the words from their memorial services.

On February 8, 2003 I said…

Luke 2:25-32 NRSV

This scripture text contains one of the most beautiful prayers found in the Bible. In fact, it is more of a hymn than it is a prayer. It is a wonderful hymn of celebration consisting of verses found in the Hebrew Scriptures from the book of Isaiah. It is the last hymn of righteous and devout man named Simeon.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of al peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.

This was the last prayer of a righteous and devout man, named Simeon. I want to suggest that this was also the last prayer of a righteous and devout man named Walter Blackley.

Simeon was able to sing this prayer, because Simeon was given the blessed opportunity to hold the Christ Child in his arms. Simeon was given the opportunity to hold the hope for the world in his arms. Simeon was given the blessed opportunity to hold grace in his arms.

More than perhaps anyone that I know, I believe Walter was also a holder of grace.

Allow me to define the concept of grace for you by asking you a few questions:

What do you call a seventy-something-year-old man who was able hit a baseball and ran the bases with his grandson during a little league’s parents’ day?

I believe you call that grace.

What do you call an eighty year old man riding a jet ski with his thirteen-year old granddaughter?

I believe you call that grace.

What do you call someone who valiantly served his country in the Second World War, surviving untold horrors, without loss of limb and life?

You call that grace.

What do you call someone who contracted malaria that sent him home to a military hospital until the end of the war where soon after he married his girl named Frances with whom he shared 58 long years of happiness?

What do you call the gift of a small farm which provided needed therapy which helped a war veteran overcome the dreadful experiences of war?

You call that grace.

What do you all someone who was given the gift of three beautiful daughters and the gift of four beautiful grandchildren? What do you call the miracle of Vida Mclawhorn who has and continues to confound medical science and inspire us all?

You call that grace.

Walter understood that these gifts—this gift of abundant life, this gift of vigorous health, this gift of miraculous strength, and the gifts of love—were all completely unearned and underserved gifts of God’s amazing grace.

This is what I believe made Walter such a wonderful man.  This is what I believe made him so endearing and so loving to so many people.  This is why I believe Walter lived is life and served others in the community with such incredible integrity. This is why he treated everyone the same regardless of their ethnicity and regardless of their religion.  This is what gave this endearing man such a wonderful sense of humor.

Walter understood that it was God’s grace which kept him going so strong so late in his life.  Always in a hurry.  One of Walter’s all time favorite sayings was:  “C’mon Frances, we got it go!”

It was the amazing grace of God which enabled him to mow is own lawn every summer, even this last summer. . .with a push mower.  Walter Blackley was indeed a holder of grace.

Like Simeon, Walter had been given the wonderful opportunity to hold the Christ Child in his arms.  He had been given the opportunity in his eighty-six years to hold the promise of strength and the promise of help in times of trouble which was found through his relationship with Christ.  Walter had been given the opportunity to hold hope and salvation in his arms.

I believe this is what compelled this man to attend Sunday School and worship so faithfully Sunday after Sunday.  Walter came to church, even during the past year when the pain in his neck and shoulder was the greatest, because Walter realized that all that he had, and all that he had received were unearned, undeserved gifts of God’s amazing grace.

I believe the best news for us is that we who loved Walter and were loved by Walter, are also holders of grace. We are holders of grace because we too have been given a wonderful gift.  We too have been given a gift which was completely unearned and undeserved.  For we each of been given the gift of Walter—of  knowing him and loving him and being loved by him.  And when we can consider this, I believe our mourning and grief can be and will be transformed into thanksgiving and joy.

And in what may be more difficult, I believe we should also consider that we are holders of grace because have also been given the peaceful, gracious death of Walter.  I have heard many Christians tell me that they do not fear death.  It is dying that they fear. Christians do not fear going to be with God, it is the pathway to God that we fear—it is the suffering we fear. Yes, the way that Walter died is yet one more reason that I believe the last prayer of Simeon was the last prayer of Walter.

And I believe we also need to consider that we, like Simeon and like Walter, have also been given the gift of the gift of the Christ child.  We too have been given the gift of the promise of strength and help in times of trouble. As God had delivered Walter through so many of life’s storms, we can know that God can and will do the same for us.  God will see us through our grief and our pain, and God will one day see us through our deaths, as God has seen Walter through his. We are indeed holders of hope, holders of salvation, and holders of grace.

And hopefully, we too will one day be able to sing the prayer of Simeon and the prayer of Walter Blackley:

 Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

_____________________________________

On February 19, 2003 I said…

I need to say it, because during the last three days, we have all have been thinking it. We have said it silently to ourselves and out loud to others.

Frances was always just a few steps behind her husband, Walter.

It was like Walter had called from heaven, “Come on Frances, we got to go!”  Frances was always a few steps behind Walter because Frances loved to tell a story. Walter would say, “Frances, we’ve got to go” or “They’ve got to go. They’ve already heard that story ten times!”

And she would respond, “Well, I’m going to tell it again!”  Then she would say: “That man’s been rushing me since the day we got married!”

Yes, Frances loved to tell a story.  And this woman was the perfect story teller because she knew a little something about everything.  She was one of the most well-read ladies that I know.  She was also one of the most faithful Christians that I know.  Thus, many of her stories, her grandchildren recall, were like Aesop’s Fables. She had a story for everything, and each story taught us a valuable lesson about life. Carol, Janice and Vida, your lives and your children’s lives have been enriched forever because of those stories.  You are who you are—strong, caring, compassionate, loving, Christian—because of the many wonderful stories Frances told.  Her stories taught you to avoid gossip and pettiness.  Her stories taught you not to sweat the small stuff; to respect and to love everyone the same.  Her stories taught you to work hard, to be fair and to keep it simple.

Her stories taught you about love. That love is patient and kind. That love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. That love does not insist on its own way.  It is not irritable or resentful.  It does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Many of us have said to one another and said to ourselves that Frances died the way Frances lived: Ten steps behind her husband, Walter, telling stories.

Frances spent the last ten days telling and retelling a wonderful love story that mimics a fairy tale.  Eleven days ago, Frances had the rare opportunity to share this love story with her entire family and a host of friends:

A love story of a seventeen-year-old beautiful stenographer from Salisbury named Frances who had eyes for a handsome, confident 25 year old named from Franklinton named Walter— A love story of a courtship that was only six months old when the couple was separated as Walter was called to serve his country during the Second World War— A love story of a long distance  relationship which endured two-and-one-half years as the two sent exchanged love letters between Salisbury and New Guinea— A love story of a young man who came home from the war to meet his girl in Salisbury on a Monday, and to elope the next day on Tuesday, the day before Valentine’s Day.  Frances told us of a love story which encompassed fifty-eight years of marriage— A love story about a couple who were completely devoted to their family, supportive of every  good thing their children did— A love story of a couple who always stayed together, always worked together, always worshipped together and always played together— A love story of a couple who spent many Saturday nights dancing together in their living room to ball room dance tunes emanating from their television tuned to the Lawrence Welk Show.

This past week I believe that Frances also told us another love story.  However, this story was not told with mere words. This story was told more with her life. This story was told more with her tremendous faith in God.  One of the grandchildren showed me Walter and Frances’ big family Bible.  Throughout the book, from Genesis to Revelation, there are dates written on the pages with two initials, “W.” and “F.”  Beginning in Genesis, Walter and Frances read the Bible together and then dated and initialed each passage.  They did this for years until they finished reading the Bible from cover to cover.

Yes, Frances loved to tell a story, but more importantly, Frances loved to tell the story.  With her life and with her faith, and with the word of God engraved on her heart, with tremendous fortitude, Frances shared with us the love story of God. –The love story of a God who has promised to never leave us or forsake us.  –The love story of a God who walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death no matter how many times we are forced to walk there –The love story of a God who promises to be present with us through the storms of life and to see us through them—The love story of a God who always gives us the strength that we need to face any trial and any tribulation—The love story of a God who is always in our world working all things together for the good—The love story of a God who has given us the wonderful gift of God’s self, the gift of the Spirit and the gift of the Church.

One of the first things that Frances said to me after Walter’s death was, “Jarrett, I have said it before, and I will say it again: “If you are going to have to go through trouble in this world, there is no better place to be than the church.”  Frances loved her church.  She knew that it was through her church and through her many relationships in the church that she was going to be alright.  She was so looking forward to attending her circle meeting on the Monday after Walter’s death.

Frances’ tremendous faith was unwavering.  She was so strong, so hopeful.

Over and over and over again, with her life and with her faith, Frances has shared with us the love story of God— The love story of a God who promises each of us who have lost so much recently that we too, are going to be alright— The love story of a God of resurrection and of hope— The love story of a God who is in the business of transforming our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope and death into life— The love story of a God who has brought life, abundant and eternal to Walter and Frances through resurrection and who is working even now to transform our shock and grief and pain into peace.

I believe God has already done that for many of us. When we first heard the tragic news of Frances’ sudden death, we were shaken and dismayed beyond belief. But then the God of resurrection came, and the God of resurrection began to work. And it was not long before the look of bewilderment on our faces was transformed into great big smiles.

“Come on. Frances, we got to go!” he said.

“That man has been rushing me since the day I married him!” she quipped.

“Come on Frances, they have heard that story already ten times!”

“Walter, you are going to have to wait, because I am going to tell it again!”

And that is exactly what she did.

She told us one more time the story— the story of unseen things above— the story of Jesus and his glory, the story of Jesus and his love.  She loved to tell the story, because she knew it to be true.  It satisfied her longings as nothing else can do.

My prayer for the Blackley family and for all of us who grieve is a simple one. Remember the love story of God which was shared over and over again by this beautiful woman.  May the love story of God, which was Frances’ story become our story.  May this story fill us with courage and with strength. And may we spend the rest of our days sharing this story with others, until that day comes when we will see the couple again face to face, as we will one day see God face to face.

Left-Handed Power

sunset-road-iii-hdr-joelht-deviantart_405797

I recently had a conversation with someone who firmly believes God uses God’s power to either cause or avoid preventing tragedies in life in order to accomplish some divine purpose. The God who rules with “thunder in his footsteps” and “lightening in his fist,” as the song goes, will rain down cancer, heart disease, automobile accidents, hurricanes and earthquakes to accomplish the divine purpose.

Thus, when a school teacher and mother of two runs her car off the road and is tragically killed, people say: “God has God’s reasons.”

For me, this represents a gross misunderstanding of the power of God revealed through Jesus.

One day, a little boy and a father who were driving down the road admiring a beautiful sunset. The father said to son, “And to think, God created all of this just for us to enjoy.”

The little boy responded, “And to think, God did it all with God’s left hand.”

Puzzled, the father asked: “What do you mean, son? Where did you hear that?”

“Well, the little boy responded, “God had to use God’s left hand, because my Sunday School teacher told me that in heaven Jesus was sitting on God’s right hand.”

As they say, out of the mouth of babes.

The truth is, we have allowed the world to define “power” for us, instead of allowing Jesus to define “power” for us.

To the world, “power” means controlling.  Power means dominating.  Power means taking. Power means ruling.  Power means imposing.

However, the power of God as revealed through Jesus Christ is the exact opposite.  God has what the late theologian Arthur McGill called a “peculiar” kind of power.  You could call it a “left-handed power.”  It is a power of self-expending, self-giving love.

God’s power is not power that takes, but a power that gives.

God’s power is not a power that rules, but a power that serves.

Not a power that imposes, but a power that loves.

Not a power that dominates, but a power that dies.

And as Arthur McGill has written:

This is the reason that it is no accident that Jesus undertakes his mission to the poor and to the weak and not to the strong, to the dying and not to those full of life.  For with these vessels of need God most decisively vindicates his peculiar kind of power, his power of service whereby the poor are fed, the sinful are forgiven, the weak are strengthened, and the dying are made alive (See Reigning from the Cross).

Thus, the moment the school teacher in the accident took her last breath, God did not take her. The best way to explain it is that during that moment, God came and God gave. God came, and in a most powerful way, gave her the very best gift that God has to give, the gift of God’s holy self. God came and gave God’s self completely and eternally to her.

Thanks be to God.

A Runner’s Prayer

MARTATHON-1

Someone recently asked me how she should pray for me this weekend during the marathon.

She even had the audacity to ask: “Do you want me to pray that you win the race?” 

First of all, let’s get something straight. The winner of the marathon will have time to take a shower, eat some brunch, update their facebook status, and take a nap before I cross the finish line!

Then she asked, “Or do you want me to pray that you don’t get injured and are just able to finish the race?”

Now, that is a better prayer.

However, I do not believe it is the best prayer.

The truth is that I ought to be grateful that I have the health and the ability to risk injury.

The real miracle on Saturday will not be that I finish the race, but that I have the opportunity to start the race.

So if you want to pray for me this weekend, don’t pray for my legs.

Instead, pray for my eyes.

Pray that my eyes may see the sheer grace of this mystery we call life, this miracle we call the world.

Pray that my eyes may see that all that I have and all that I am is an unearned and undeserved gift of God’s amazing grace.

And then, maybe, having seen the sheer grace and absolute glory of it all—the gift of my great friends, the gift of my wonderful family, the gift of my inexplicable life—I will not only run the full marathon this Saturday, but I will dance the 26.2!

Even if it takes all day.

Light It Up!

beatitudes-1

Matthew 5:1-20

I believe one of the reasons that some Southerners yearn to see some snow, at least once a year, is because of the sheer magic of it. In an article for the Farmville Enterprise I quoted J.B. Priestly: “You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”

Then I wrote:

One day Stantonsburg Road was littered with empty Natural Light cans, leftover trash from Bojangles and McDonalds, and the carcass of a possum or two. The next day it was a majestic, untarnished pathway through a winter wonderland.

One day my lawn was brown, covered with ugly winter weeds and strewn with fallen tree limbs and dog droppings that I have been too lazy to pick up. The next day it was glistening white, void of a single blemish.

One day the flaws and faults of this fragmented world were all too apparent. The next day everything seemed to be forgiven, blanketed by grace. And although the world was still a very dangerous place to drive and to even walk, the hopeful wonder and potential beauty of the world was obvious (from: Snowflakes from Heaven).

Snow in the South is like a fairytale. But a few days later, the sun comes out, the rains fall, and it quickly melts away bringing us back to the real world, where we see the harsh, uncovered reality of it all. And the winter wonderland that once was seems to be a distant magical dream.

Have you ever considered that we might have it all backwards?

What if the fairytale is the littered highways and the brown lawns with ugly winter weeds?

What if the magical dream is the uncovered, unforgiven, graceless, and fragmented existence?

What if reality is the winter wonderland? What if reality is the world that has been blanketed by grace? What if reality is the world where hopeful wonder and potential beauty always exist?

I know what you are thinking…“Oh my goodness! Somebody call 911 ‘cause the preacher has lost his mind!”

But what if I have not lost my mind, and in fact, right now, my mind is as sane and as sharp as it has ever been?

I have said before that Jesus spoke less about sin and more about our inability to see. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see…” (John 9:39).  He continues throughout the gospels:

Do you have eyes and fail to see (Mark 8:18)? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:3)?  Blessed are the eyes that see what you see (Luke 10:23)! Prophets and kings desired to see what you see but did not see it (Luke 10:24)!

Over and over, Jesus talked about importance of seeing something that most have difficulty seeing. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Not to get rid of it, but to bring it back into focus, to help us to truly see the purpose within it.

This is why I believe he said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

To see anything, light is needed; thus, one of the main purposes of Jesus is enabling people to see, to see the real world, to see reality.

And what is reality? What is it that we have so much trouble seeing? What is it that God wants us to see?

I believe the answer is in Jesus’ first recorded sermon. Jesus went up on a mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

God favors the “poor in spirit.” Not the religious, the devout, the pious or even the spiritual. Not the pastors, the elders and the deacons, not even the church member who serves in the soup kitchen. No, God favors the ones who have come to be served at the soup kitchen. They are not the ones with something to give. They are the ones with nothing to give. Jesus says the ones who are blessed, the ones who are blessed by God are those who, spiritually speaking, are completely destitute and needy. Their very spirits have been broken. And notice that Jesus uses the present tense. Not will be blessed. Not might be favored. They are, right now, right here, blessed. This is reality. And their future is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

God favors the mourners. Not the faithful who can understand what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he said we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), or “rejoice even in the midst of suffering” (Romans 5:3-10), but the ones who are not just complaining about the pain in their life, but they actually in mourning over that pain. They look at who they are, and who they have become, and they grieve. They look in the mirror in utter despair, and Jesus calls them blessed and promises comfort.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

The meek, the gentle, the shy and the timid are favored. Not the strong. Not the ones with the personalities or the confidence to overcome all sorts of adversity and somehow still make it to the top. Blessed are the ones who have never conquered anything, not even their own fears. It is the weak, says Jesus, not the strong, who survive and inherit the earth.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones on whose behalf the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). These are the ones who have been unjustly judged, mistreated, shunned and bullied by society, even by communities of faith. They have suffered grave injustices because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, socioeconomic level and political or theological background. They have been beaten up so badly by the world that they hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, like a wanderer lost in a hot desert thirsts for water. Jesus says that they are blessed and they are favored and they are the ones who will not only be satisfied, but will be filled, their cups overflowing.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

Not the perfect and the proud, the boastful and the arrogant. But God favors the ones who are fully aware of their imperfections, the ones who have made mistakes, terrible mistakes. Thus, when they encounter others who are also suffering from unthinkable errors in judgment, they have mercy and compassion, and in their hearts, there is always room for forgiveness. They give mercy, because they need mercy for themselves. And because they are favored by God, they will receive it.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).

Not the pure, but the “pure in heart.” Not the ones who, on the outside, appear to be straight and narrow, the ones who seem to have it all together, whose characters appear to be flawless. No, God favors the ones viewed by the world as abominations. We are reminded of the words of 1 Samuel “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God will see the hopeful wonder and the potential beauty of who they are and they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).

Not the ones who have necessarily found peace for themselves. But the tormented, disturbed and restless, who, because they are so continuously in chaos, seek to make peace whenever and wherever they can. Blessed are those who are without stability, but seek it, because they will find a home, a place of security, rest and a peace that is beyond all understanding, within the family of God.[i]

This, Jesus pronounces, is not a prescription of how things should be or how things could be. Jesus asserts that this is how things are! This is not some enchanted dream or magical fairytale. This is reality. This is truth. And Jesus announces: “I have come as light, as the Light of the World, to help you see it, to give all who are blind to it, sight to really see it as it really is.”

And not only that, Jesus says, you, who seek to follow me, you, who seek do the things that I do, go to the places that I go, you, who want to be my disciples, are also the Lights of the World. And you are called not to hide your light, but to shine your light on what is reality, what is true, so all may see it the way God sees it.

And we are to light it up in the same manner Jesus lit it up.

In Matthew 4 we read after James and John, Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets to follow Jesus, they proclaimed “…the good newsof the kingdom by curing every disease and every sickness among the people…those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matthew 4:23-24).

We are to shine our lights by lifting up, accepting and caring for all people, especially those the world leaves behind. We are to light it up by loving, accepting, and caring for the least among us: the poor, the weak, those who need mercy, the marginalized who hunger and thirst for justice, the obviously flawed but pure in heart, and the troubled who yearn for peace.

Will we look like fools? You bet. Will people say that the way we accept and love and affirm others is socially and even theologically unacceptable? It’s likely. Will we be demeaned and even persecuted by others in the community, even other churches? Perhaps.

But here is the good news: Jesus also said,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you [notice the change in person] when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-11).

So let the rest of the world live in their enchanted, dreamlike, fairytale existence where the rich, the prosperous, the powerful and the strong are blessed and favored by God.

And let us commit ourselves to living in reality, in the world created by our gracious God, in the world that Jesus, the Light of the World, came to help us see, in the world where the Holy Spirit reveals the hopeful wonder and potential beauty in all things and in all people, in the world that has indeed been blanketed by grace, like a 4-inch snowfall in the South.

And let us, as lights of this world, for the sake of this world, keep lighting it up, until the day comes when the eyes of all are finally fully opened. Amen.


[i] Words on the Beatitudes were inspired by Frederick Buechner. Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 18.           

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world and light it up!

So the poor will know that they are blessed.

Light it up!

So that the weak will know that they are favored.

Light it up!

So that those who ache for justice will be satisfied.

Light it up!

So that the obviously flawed but pure in heart will see God.

Light it up!

So that those you yearn for peace will know security as God’s beloved children.

Light it up!

Knowing that if you are persecuted, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Light it up!

Until the day comes when the eyes of all are finally fully open, and all may know love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.