Have a Selfless Christmas

Bobby running

I have been an avid runner now for ten years. I love the way running makes me feel. I love the way running keeps me relatively thin. I love the way running allows me to enjoy nature. I love the way running gives me opportunities to make new friends.

Do you notice a common theme here? Me, me, me, me.

I confess that I run for many selfish reasons. However, thanks to Ainsley’s Angels, an organization created to help those with physical disabilities to enjoy some of the benefits of running, my running has suddenly become more selfless. Last week, Ainsley’s Angels graciously donated a wheelchair to be used to run 5k races with Bobby Hodge, Jr. who suffers with cerebral palsy.

It is as if a little bit of time spent running with Bobby this week has nearly absolved ten years’ worth of selfishness!

The holidays are upon us. If we are honest, we would confess that we love these days for many selfish reasons. We love the way that they make us feel. We love the way they help us enjoy our families and our friends. We love the lights, the parties and the gifts.

However, the truth is that it only takes a little selflessness to absolve a whole month of selfishness. So, during this holiday season, let us spend a little bit of our time doing something for someone else. Serve a hot meal in a soup kitchen. Visit a nursing home or a hospital. Adopt a family in need. Give to a charity. Make worship a priority. Most importantly, put a little faith in a little baby lying in a little manger.

And may our selfish days be transformed into selfless days. May our holidays suddenly become holy days.

Measured in Love – Remembering Lou Taylor Lewis Summerlin

Lou SummerlinThere are many ways that people measure their lives.

Some people measure their lives by the amount of money that they earned. Some people measure their lives by the number of their possessions, acquisitions, businesses owned, or by their stock portfolio.

Others measure their lives by the square-footage of their house or by the number of their houses. Some measure their lives by the size of the estate they leave behind.

Some measure their lives by the type of car they drive or by the clothes or jewelry they wear. Some measure their lives by how long they were able to enjoy good health, by how little medicine they took, by how few nights they spent in the hospital.

As a single mother of three, and as a selfless, self-giving,  hard-working public school teacher, as someone who sacrificed her entire life for others, Lou did not accumulate great wealth and did not leave behind a sizable estate. For many years now, after suffering a debilitating stroke, she had lived in the home of her daughter Bonnie or had stayed for extended periods of time with Meredith and Carol. However, I do not believe the size of her estate or the vitality of her health are the true measures of her life.

Many people measure their lives by the number of birthdays they celebrated. When many of you learned that Lou had passed away Saturday morning, one of the first things some of you asked was how old she was. This is not surprising for this is the standard question we ask when someone dies. For time is the standard way that we measure life. It is what we list in the obituary, on funeral bulletins and on headstones.

Lou had seventy-eight years on this earth. Many would say that is a good, complete life. However, I do not believe that that is the true measure of her life.

Others measure lives by the number of children one has. This is also something that we list in the obituary. Lou had three beautiful daughters: Bonnie, Carol and Meredith; and eight grandchildren: Jamie, Sam, Matthew, Jacob, Ashlyn, Eryn, Grace and Isaiah. However, as wonderful as children and grandchildren are, I do not believe they are the true measure of her life.

I believe the real measure, the real yardstick of life, is the amount of love that we share while we are on this earth. Love is the true measure of a person’s life.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-Winning musical, Rent, author Jonathan Larson wrote the following words:

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand moments so dear,

Five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure—measure a year?

In daylights—in sunsets

In midnights—in cups of coffee

In inches—in miles

In laughter—in strife.

In five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure a year of life?

How about love?  How about love?

How about love? Measure in love.

Seasons of love.  Seasons of love.

When it is all said and done, it really doesn’t matter how much money we made, how large our home was, what kind of car we drove, or what kind of jewelry or clothing we wore.

And in the end, none of us can control the quantity of days we will have on this earth. None of us know how many calendars, how many birthdays we will see. And none of us can control how many children or grandchildren we might have. We can, however, control the love that we offer to others. And in the end, others will know what kind of life we lived.

The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes knew something about this.  That life is measured, not in years, but in seasons. And one of those seasons is love.

The Apostle Paul said, “Three things will last forever, Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is love.”

The Apostle John said, “Love is of God, for God is love.”

And our Savior Jesus Christ proclaimed, “The two greatest commandments are to love God, and to love one another.”

Lou lived seventy-eight years on this earth. Some would say that is a pretty good, complete life. But the good news is that that is not the measure of her life. The good news is that Lou loved more and deeper than some people who live 88, 98, or even 108 years on this earth.

When I went to see Lou’s family when I received word that she had passed away, her sister Cordelia immediately shared: “Lou emulated everything Jesus taught.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

She replied with two words: “Unconditional love.”

A great illustration of the depth of her unconditional love is the time she invited her son-in-law Troy, then a recent graduate of West Point, to come and speak to one of her classes. Before he arrived, she had been announcing to the class that her son was going to be a guest speaker. The class loved Mrs. Summerlin, and thus, they were very eager to meet her son. When the day came, in walked Troy: very tall, very handsome, and very dark.

The class questioned her, “This is your son?”

“Yes,” she proudly responded with a smile, “This is my son.”

It would be an understatement to say that Lou loved her daughters, and her daughters’ families, more than she loved her own life. This love propelled her to give all that she had to give and to work until she could work no more. And it was by this love, and the love that she had for her friends and others that she measured her life. She lived a simple life of contentment because of the love she possessed and shared.

Lou also deeply cared for her  group of girlfriends that have been best friends since high school. They call themselves the “Cameos”.  Every October, she looked forward to meeting somewhere for a long weekend of fellowship and fun. She missed the most recent reunion due to her many health issues, but she was so moved by the outpouring of love she received from her dear Cameo friends in the way of visits and cards.

Lou loved to play the piano and she loved to sing. She sang at many funeral services. But Lou understood the words of the Apostle Paul, that if we play music and sing like angels, but do not have love, we are nothing, a loud gong or clanging cymbals. When Lou played and when Lou sang, it was always with love.

Jesus said, “this is how people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” No matter what the TV evangelists say, it is not by your wealth or by your health. And it is not even by the number of children or grandchildren you have. They will know that you belong to me by your love.

So today, just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, we thank God for Lou’s life. But we thank God especially for Lou’s love. For love is the true measure of her life.

And one day, may someone say of us, that it is not the amount of money we earned, not the number of days we stayed out of the hospital, not the number of birthdays that we had, and not the number of children or grandchildren that we produced, but the way we loved, and how we loved, that indicated that we had a very full and complete life.

Oh, they may still talk about our age, how long we walked the earth, they may talk about our children and grandchildren, but that will not be as important to God or as remembered by anyone as how much we loved.

I want to close by reading a poem that Lou’s daughter Carol wrote many years ago entitled, “An Angel on Earth.”

Carol describes the poem with the following words:

          This poem was written for my beautiful mother. She is the sweetest most caring person in my life. I love her dearly. She is single and has sacrificed so much in her life for her three girls. She is my medicine. Just the sound of her voice comforts me like nothing else in this world can. She is my angel on earth. When I read this poem to her, she acted strange and said it wasn’t her. It almost hurt my feelings! I didn’t think she liked it. But what I realized was that this was what made her so special. She doesn’t even know how special she is. A couple of days later, she asked to have this poem read at her funeral when the time comes. I said, “ok,” but that is a day I hope doesn’t come for a very long time.

Angel on Earth

She holds strength in the palm of her hand.

She is patient and she is kind.

She loves the sound of laughter, the smell of the

and the sparkle in a child’s eye.

She can soothe the soul with the sound of her voice,

ease the pain with the touch of her hand.

Build confidence through words of encouragement

and lift spirits when no other can.

She inspires one to grow, to love and to learn,

always strives to please, not herself, but others.

She is a cherished friend and confidant.

This angel on earth is my mother.

And here, as we mark the end of Lou’s wonderful life, the words of this poem could not be more true. Because, as Cordelia said, Lou was the personification of everything Jesus taught: love, unconditional love.

Thanks be to God.

Who Is Your King?

paris

John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his actions and his teachings and has already been questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. Because the sad truth is, that in this world, when you love all people and teach others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you. It is now Pilate’s turn to question him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus is the King. But as he told Pilate, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We prefer “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “I hear you, and the ones who knocked down these buildings will soon hear from all of us!”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe in fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas; we speak English, and if you don’t like it, get the heck out.”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love and help only those who we believe deserve our love and help.

We prefer a kingdom where people know their places and have earned those places.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we love ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus is implying that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And Jesus is asking Pilate and Jesus is asking you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers safety and comfort;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king offers security;

One king demands risk.

One king endorses greed and prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king rules by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

So, of course the powers that be, the kings of this world, arrested the king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course they tortured this king, spat on this king, mocked this king and crucified this king, this king from a foreign realm. Of course they tried to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate could not defeat this king. Bigotry could not stop this king. Religion and patriotism could not overthrow his throne. This king would rise again. But not the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there was no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There were no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There was no shock and awe or violence of any kind.

For this king understood what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king arose from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe in him or to doubt him, to reject him or to follow him. This king drove out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king drove out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these dark days of November 2015?

It all depends on who your king is.

This past Monday, Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in the attacks in Paris, proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.

The good news is that our king does not have to be Pat McCory and our King does not have to be Barak Obama.

If we choose, our king will never be Donald Trump or Ben Carson, and our king will never be Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they offer is temporary. Their reigns are fleeting.

If we choose, our king is and will be the one whom the prophet Daniel speaks:

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousand served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgement,

and the books were opened. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Lessons from the Greatest Generation

grumpy-old-men1

Every weekday morning, a small group of retired men meet at a local restaurant and gather around what they call “the Round Table.” Many, well into their nineties, meet to discuss politics, religion and how old they are getting over a cup of coffee and a sausage or cheese biscuit. All attend church regularly somewhere in town. Nearly all of them served our country during World War II or the Korean War. I would describe them as “conservative,” “patriotic,” and “Christian,” and maybe a little “grumpy.”

As a pastor in the community, I have learned that “the Round Table” is the place to go in town to get the latest news, a good laugh, and yes, even some gossip. I can always count on them to speak their minds, holding nothing back, whether it is regarding their latest physical maladies or what they really think about Obama.

One morning last week, part of the conversation went something like this:

“Preacher, what do you think about all of these poor refugees?”

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” I responded.

“And what do you think about all of these state governors saying that they are not allowed in their states?” asked another.

Before I could answer, another spoke up and said: “I can’t see Jesus turning away any of these refugees.”

Another said: “Yes, it may be risky. But Jesus did ask us to carry a cross, didn’t he?”

Someone added: “And he said that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.”

I tried to get a word in edgewise, but quickly realized that, this time, it was best for the preacher to sit back and just listen.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” one said.

“Do unto others as you would have it done unto you,” said another.

“And all of these people are saying that we don’t have room for them. I got nine rooms in my house, and I only use three: the bathroom, the kitchen and the den. I fall asleep most nights in my recliner!”

“I got a whole upstairs with three bedrooms and a bath that I have not seen for years!”

“And these people would probably gladly live in our garages, even without heat!”

“And these young people are saying that we don’t have enough here in this country for them. They don’t know what it is like to live in this country when we really did not have anything. When I was growing up, we really did not have enough!”

“And if we turn our backs on these people, don’t you think it is only going to make people in this world hate us more than they already do.”

“We can’t let fear cause us to hate.”

“That’s right.”

Someone then changed the subject asking, “Preacher, have you seen John lately? He was in bad shape the last time we saw him. He could barely walk.”

“I thought he was going to fall the last time he came in here,” another said.

I said, “I will go by and check on him.”

Several responded at the same time: “Yes, we all need to do that.”

I then told them that I needed to go to the office. As I walked out the door, I thought to myself: “No wonder people call them “the greatest generation.”

Gone out of the Religion Business

GoingOutOfBusinessHebrews 10:11-25

This morning, I wonder how many of you could answer the following question if you were on television playing for one million dollars. You’ve already used all of your lifelines. You can no longer poll the rest of the congregation or use your friends at AT&T to telephone a friend.

Which of the following is not a religion?

a. Running Marathons

b. Investing in the Stock Market

c. The Atkins Diet

d. The Christian Faith

Again, you can only choose one. All life lines have been exhausted. Which is not a religion?  If you said, “d. the Christian faith,” and that was your final answer, you just won one million dollars!

The wonderful truth about our faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what some may tell you, the church is not in the religion business.

While I was pastoring a church back in 1993, a deacon asked me where I saw myself in twenty years. I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere, or playing a college professor in a TV commercial. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”

“Why do you say that?”

He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not in the religion business. The truth is, the last thing a Christian pastor should be, is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  This comes from Robert Capon. 

Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.

William Willimon has said: 

Religion is the human attempt to get a handle on the key to life, to plug in to power, to find the program that leads to happiness, meaning, self-esteem, or whatever it is that gives a person life.

And the strange thing is: that key, power or program may have absolutely nothing to do with God. Before my knee surgery, Lori used to say that I ran religiously. She has said that I read Runner’s World magazine like I read the Bible. I read it religiously every month, trying my best to run faster, achieve good health and look better so I can enjoy the good life!

We have all observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the Wall-Street Journal religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows the Atkin’s diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

The truth is many of us are doing all we can do, working out, eating right, studying, going to work, following a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! We do it for ourselves, but we also for that something which is beyond ourselves: low blood pressure and cholesterol, smaller hips, a house on the river, for that something which will grant us fulfillment and satisfaction. So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some of us, religion is all about God. There are those of us who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. Religion is viewed as something that people work at in order to have a correct relationship with God. If we can say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then we can be right with God. If we can conduct our lives based on high moral and ethical standards, we can place ourselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

Willimon says that the bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion. No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right. For years I had been following the advice of Runner’s World magazine by eating salmon every chance I can got for those omega three fatty acids for my heart. I used to eat the stuff all the time. Lori once said she thought I was going to turn into a salmon. Well, in an issue not that long ago, I learned that if the salmon is not caught wild, straight from the ocean, it will probably give you cancer. Turns out, the farmers who raise the fish feed it these food pellets which are laced with cancer-causing chemicals. No matter how hard we try, we can never get it right.

They used to say that eating bacon and eggs every morning will make you fat and kill you. Now, they say it is that bagel which is going to make you fat. They used to tell us we could get thin by snacking on rice cakes, now they tell us its best to snack on pork rinds. We can’t win! Religion is always a one-way ticket to failure.

Take the religion of golf. You master your irons and start slicing with your woods. You drive long and straight with your driver, hit your iron and land on the green in two, and then you three-putt. That is part of the reason golf is so addicting. It is a one-way ticket to failure. You make a bad shot and it makes you mad. You make a good shot and it makes you mad, because you wonder why you can’t hit it like that every time!

The truth is: at religion, the harder we try, the greater we fail. We can eat all of the right foods and exercise every day of the week and still need knee surgery.

We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.

And when you finally arrive at the place where you think you have it right with God. You finally believe you have got it right in the ethics and morality department, guess what? It usually leads to pride and arrogance. I had a church member tell me one day, “I am the most humble person in this church!”

Sure you are.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to religion.  Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies. Think about it: I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly have to be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my sin is still going to get the best of me before I can get back to my car. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

In contrast to the posture of the priest who is always standing, notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. In this great gift of God’s self, God put religion out of business. And now, Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God. We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ. This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing this set of principles or that set of ideals, that biblical interpretation or this style of worship. It is about believing and following the Christ.

That is why we call it the gospel. It is good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged. Praise God, in Jesus Christ, this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God the church has gone out of the religion business!  If it hadn’t, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

This is why extremist or fundamentalist religion is wrong and dangerous, whether it is fundamentalist Muslim religion or fundamentalist Christian religion. Religious extremists believe that their salvation and the salvation of the world is dependent on the laws they believe, the laws they teach and the laws they obey. That Is how they can justify shooting people in a marketplace, in a school, or in a church, or blowing up a plane, a restaurant, a theater, an abortion clinic or a building with a daycare center. And this is how they can justify creating a fuss if others do not believe as they believe. They believe it is their God-ordained, religious duty to force their beliefs on others to keep themselves right with God.

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, creating a fuss, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. The work of religion is out of business. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us.

Think about that. Because I know that are some of you who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. You have never professed faith in Christ through baptism because you are waiting until you somehow get it right yourselves. You’re busy running back and forth to altars of good heath, right conduct and correct thinking. I invite you to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invited you to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

[i] Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.

God in Paris

paris 1Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister and children’s television host, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

When horrific tragedy unfolded in Oklahoma City in 1995, New York City in 2001, and in Charleston, Kenya, Lebanon, and Paris in 2015, we witnessed demonic evil personified through the selfish actions of terrorists influenced by pride, hate and bad religion.

The evil was real, yet unimaginable; heart-wrenching, yet heart-numbing. The evil produced deafening silence and loud cries of anguish.

However, during the same dark moments, we witnessed holiness personified through the selfless and sacrificial actions of police officers, firefighters and other first-responders influenced by pure love and authentic faith.

We also witnessed love through the prayers, thoughts and actions of God’s children: Muslim, Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and others.

The love expressed was real yet unimaginable, heart wrenching yet heart numbing. The willingness of people to suffer with, and even sacrifice their lives for, strangers produced deafening silence yet loud cheers of praise.

And the good news is this love that is pure, holy, sacrificial, real and unimaginable, unspeakable and cheerful, suffering and shocking, always overcomes the hate. This light always overcomes the darkness. This good always overtakes the evil.

So, in the midst of every tragedy, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Consequently, in the midst of every “scary thing” you will always find hope. You will always find God.

Grateful for Grace

life itself is graceDuring the holiday season, I often hear promos on the radio or television soliciting donations of toys, clothing or money to benefit “deserving” families. People will call me every year to ask our church to help an individual or a family at Christmas, and when they do, they will almost always add: “I believe these are the type of people who ‘deserve’ our gifts.”

When the love of God compelled God to give the gift of God’s self to the world, I am thankful God did not limit the gift of Christ to only those who “deserve” such a gift. It was while we were yet sinners, yet undeserving, that God revealed God’s unconditional love to us.

I recently visited a young man in the hospital. He suffered a stroke a few months ago and was being treated for an infection around his heart. It was obvious that he was experiencing both pain and fear. Yet, when I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “Well pastor, I am alive. So, I am doing better than I deserve.”

Aren’t we all? For who on earth did anything to “deserve” the gift of life?

This holiday season let us share our gifts freely, without restrictions, without conditions. Let us love our neighbors as we have been loved by God.

And this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for grace, because if we are alive, we are doing better than we deserve.