Noise. It is almost like there is a perpetual disturbance around me these days. Like waters that will not stay still. A moment’s peace and then more noise. The To-Do List stays long. There are not enough hours in a day. The time for creative writing and sermon planning seem to grow shorter. Even when that time comes, the noise in my own mind becomes so loud that creativity is shut out.
Our denomination is full of noise. We are trying to decide if we United Methodists might be able to figure out how to stay united. Groups who want control are tightening up and becoming more organized (perhaps “galvanized” might be the better word here). Tensions are growing in the debate over who gets included and who doesn’t. Whose theology rules over others. It is noisy in my beloved church right now.
But the church is also full of noise as the children of God raise their voice and hands in song. The noise of fellowship and hospitality. The noise of people building community.
Our culture is full of noise. Political noise. Violent noise. The noise of racism, sexism and white supremacy. The noise of children being shot. The noise of blame and hatred.
But the noise of hope is also heard as people care for one another, reaching beyond their own prejudices, walls and city limits to share the limitless power of love.
As I reflect on these noises, a song comes to mind. It is sung by one of my favorite singers, Neil Diamond. The song is Beautiful Noise. In it, I am reminded that those things I count as noise come together to create a symphony. Even the hard parts … especially the hard parts … are where God intends to make music.
In music, harmony and dissonance combine to create color and tone. Having listened to a great deal of music, I know this truth: the symphony is boring and lacks movement if it is ALL harmony, and the symphony is unbearable if it is ALL dissonant.
Listen closely, and you will hear it. Listen and perhaps you will hear God speaking through the noise to create beauty and movement. Beauty in our diversity and a movement that takes us ever closer to the heart of God. Somewhere in all of this noise, God is seeking to let a symphony of heavenly proportions emerge.
This blog is based on the sermon I preached yesterday, titled Shaking the Powers (based on James Harnish’s book Easter Earthquake that is being read as a churchwide devotional). Normally, I don’t publish sermons because (1) preaching (especially with my preaching style) is an event and normally doesn’t translate easily into written text and (2) I rely upon outside sources whom I cite here (yet I tread lightly because I take intellectual property very seriously). I will be linking websites and an occasional Amazon reference so people have access to the full content. That said, I am compelled to write out the sermon in more detail and am honored to have had requests to provide it in a larger format.
The Mark of Christ
Matthew 27:62-66 and Mark 1:9-15
I was just three hours short of a minor in English when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree (because I wanted to graduate more than I wanted a minor). But I love English and, combined with my love of history, I frequently look for the etymology of words and look for various meanings behind the words we use commonly.
Additionally, I have always been fascinated with idioms and their origins. There are phrases that we use in everyday life that have little to do with the subject matter at hand: Hit the sack. Break a leg. Miss the boat. And one of my favorites: speak of the devil. They all have some backstory and it is fun to explore their origins.
The idiom for today is “saved by the bell.” Many people believe this has to do with boxing or wrestling, but its meaning is much more morbid than that. In days before our modern science, there were instances where people were comatose and suddenly “came back to life” after having been buried or entombed. When someone would die, others would take precautions like placing a feather on the upper lip to see if it moved with a breath. The wake is based on the idea that we wait a day or two to see if the loved one will “wake up.” Despite their best efforts, there were occasions where the unthinkable happened and someone, presumably dead, was entombed or buried and who revived after having been buried.
To mitigate the fear that someone might actually be buried alive, a casket placed in a crypt was equipped with a string that led to a bell mounted outside the crypt. The caskets buried in the ground had a reed running through the dirt with a string that went from the hand of the deceased in the casket to a bell mounted on top of the grave. If someone awoke inside a casket or tomb, they would move and the bell would ring. People would rush to either dig up the grave or open the crypt, and the person would be “saved by the bell.”
Imagine the new perspective you would have on life if you had been “saved by the bell!”
Our church is reading James Harnish‘s book, Easter Earthquake, and through it, we are invited into a new perspective on Lent. Worship and liturgy are largely drama. We are people who live out the Christian year re-enacting the life of Christ and the early church. So when we get to Lent, we often approach it like actors in a play who, in the moment of the opening of the play, do not “know” how the play will end. The great actor “re-enacts” each scene for nights on end as though they have no idea how it will conclude, and that is what adds drama to the play.
Harnish invites us to a new perspective acknowledging that we are Easter people. We know how it ends. This is a perspective that asks us to put on our Easter glasses and look back on Lent.
And this is the week that I needed this. I am approaching this sermon from a different perspective because of the events of this week. Another school shooting with mass casualties has rocked our nation. This time it happened on Ash Wednesday. I was struck when I saw this image.
What needs to be said? What is the tie-in here? This sermon has been tumbling in my mind from Wednesday evening until today. Like a rock being polished by a tumbler, I have pulled it out to look at it only to put it back. Then it hit me. The texts for today speak perfectly into a culture of violence that has existed for thousands of years.
While we have often claimed to be a civil society, when you look at our history, we have been anything but civil. We are people who have used violence to our advantage. I think we come about this honestly … even as Christians, we have to own up to our own story.
A careful reading of Genesis gives us some insight. In the second story of creation beginning in Genesis 2:4a and going forward, we read about the man and the woman who are created and placed in the garden. They then violated the covenant with God. After that, they had two sons, the older being named Cain and the younger named Abel. In Genesis 4, we read that Cain murders Abel because the sacrifice of the younger was accepted by God over the sacrifice of the older. Then Cain went off to establish “civilization.” When we read this in context, the Hebrew sages remind us that we are all children of Cain! Our tendency toward violence is our legacy!
Jim Harnish starts us off today with Matthew 27:62-66. Jesus has been crucified and the religious leaders have convinced Pilate to let them seal the tomb and post their own guards. That way, they can make sure the disciples of “that deceiver” don’t come and steal the body and then parade around saying he was raised from the dead. The tomb is sealed. Jesus is dead. There is no hope.
Every Wednesday, I gather with a group of folks that we simply call our worship planning team. In our worship planning as we were considering this story from Matthew 27, and it was Andy who shared a visual. We have narrative about Jesus all the way up until burial, and then we have narrative about Jesus on the day of resurrection when he is no longer in the tomb. But Andy wondered what would have been like for Jesus to wake from death inside the tomb. How would it feel to be alive in a grave?
That’s what this week has felt like. I have felt like I am alive in a grave with violent words begetting violent acts begetting more violent words. It is a deadly cycle in a culture of violence, and we are challenged to come face-to-face with our own violent tendencies! We are marked and marred by this violence!
Jim Harnish then also refers this week to Mark 1:9-15, which is the actual lection for today. In this story, Jesus is baptized and “driven out” into the wilderness. He isn’t issued a cordial invitation or encouraged to go on spiritual retreat. The act of his baptism (the giving of himself fully to God) and subsequently God’s full acceptance of him have forced him to a place where he would come face-to-face, not with the devil, but with himself. Satan here is the tempter … the diabolos who throws the ball across our path to distract us.
And while other Gospels tell us specifics about Jesus’s temptation, we are not told what they are here. Jesus is fully human (what incarnation really means) and must confront his own temptations. Jesus himself had the temptation to short-circuit the process.
Mark, however, doesn’t give us descriptions as to the details of the temptations of Jesus. He gives us room to insert ourselves into the narrative. Stop and think about your own temptations. Your own violent thoughts. How do we do violence to those we love with our words? With our gossip? When we label people as “other” and then live out an “us versus them” mentality. I confess that am tempted to this kind of violence. Our church celebrates Black History Month, and we, in our church family, are all too aware that racism and white supremacy are alive and well. Violence is everywhere.
As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula. In further reading, Rabbi Kula teaches about mitzvah (which lead Christians to think about bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah when a Jewish boy or girl comes of age). The word mitzvah literally means good deed or commandment, but Rabbi Kula says there is a mystical meaning, as well, and that mystical meaning is “intimacy.”(Yearnings, p. 100) Mitzvah is about knowing ourselves in the fullest possible sense … knowing God in the fullest possible sense … and working to create true human community in the fullest possible sense. Then he says that mitzvah has no meaning without temptation.
“Do not murder” invites us to meditate on who we want to murder. Who gets under our skin; who enrages us beyond reason; who cheats us, betrays us? … When we open our eyes, when we reflect on the commandment, we begin to see different forms of murder all around us…. On an interpersonal level, the sages taught that humiliation is a form of murder. When we cause the “blood to drain out of someone’s face,” we have committed soul murder. (Yearnings, p.106)
And Jesus came face-to-face with himself and gave all of himself … his “tempted-yet-God-loved-self”… fully to God. So I invite you to join me on this Lenten journey. Maybe this is the time for us do a couple things: (1) use Lent to take an inventory of our own violent tendencies and (2) give ourselves wholly to the God who loves us. Then we are invited to work to create the community for which we have yearned! I am committed to doing that this Lent, how about you?
I am looking for a new perspective. And I found a great perspective in the person of Ann Voskamp. She is a spirit guide for me in many ways, and she speaks from a place of brokenness.
And behind her, high up in the gable, on the dining room wall, is a canvas depicting the crucifixion, Jesus with His arms stretched a universe wide, not one of us beyond His rescuing.
And I kneel down.
Kneel in front of our little girl with her arms stretched out in the meaning of love — kneel at the foot of the cross hanging behind her with Jesus stretched out in outreach that reaches even the brokenhearted.
Look for Christ in both of the images shown here – in the beautiful little smiling symbol of the cross and the tear-stained smudge of the Ash Wednesday cross practicing love’s embrace at a school where body bags are coming out one after another.
Today, friends, may the mark of our violent, mortal nature be overtaken by the mark of the divine. It is true: we are Cain’s children, … but before that … above that … more than that … we are God’s children, and we are brothers and sisters of this Christ: this “bell who saves us!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I have lived most of my life in a state of “not knowing.” Sometimes I have thought of it as just plain ignorance, but for the most part, it is about living with uncertainty … living with mystery … living in a psychological and mental state of not knowing. I am currently reading Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula, and his work is an insightful description of much of my life and thought.
In the chapter, Dancing with Uncertainty, Rabbi Kula posits that we are a world that greatly values certainty, yet we see uncertainty to be a huge liability. We pay lots of money to people who preach prosperity and certainty, whether in life or in business or in faith.
In matters of faith, particularly, we want to know that God has a plan. In times of grief, as my own family has experienced, the most unhelpful (even harmful) approach to tragedy is when people say that this tragedy is “God’s will” or “in keeping with God’s perfect plan.” That tends to bring me to the edge of rage (especially when it is said in the presence of my children or grandchildren) precisely because it tends to create this false assumption (1) that God is either not in control or, worse yet, a sadist and (2) that God’s plan is even knowable. We reduce God to a manageable size and then we attempt to rid ourselves of the anxiety of uncertainty.
Yet I admit that much of my life has been spent trying to “know” things. I often feel that, if I preach from the place of unknowing, the congregation would grow restless and anxious. After all, if the guy speaking up front doesn’t know for sure all these things about God, then why are we here?
Rabbi Kula has a response:
The biblical sages understood that the anxiety of not-knowing is the beginning of wisdom. There isn’t a single character in the Bible who understood beforehand the outcome of any journey he or she underwent. What makes these characters so special is not that they are somehow superhuman, wiser, or more evolved. It’s that they don’t scale down their dreams to the size of their fears. They are masters of the dance between uncertainty and certainty. (Kula, Yearnings, pp. 88-89)
As I read this, it struck a nerve because, when I think of “the beginning of wisdom,” my mind goes quickly to Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And I began to ponder how that plays out for me. As you might suppose, I have a guess (though I admit my uncertainty as to the absolute nature of my thesis).
When we think about the fear of the Lord, we often think of fear as being afraid or scared. This really isn’t the same thing. The Hebrew word יִרְאָה (yi’rah) is translated into the Greek φόβος (phobos from which we get the word “phobia”), and they both mean “fear based on not knowing.” It is anxiety producing. It is awe-inspiring. It brings us more often to a place of confused silence in the face of the enormity of what we have experienced.
I am a man of many words (just ask the congregations I have served or do a word count on this blog), yet when our son-in-law died and we had flown to Hawaii to be with our daughter, I suddenly was without words. I sat in silence a great deal of the time. At some level, I was anxious and angry and generally grief-stricken as much for what was happening to my daughter and granddaughter as my own sense of loss at losing a young man who was more son than son-in-law. Above all that, however, I was standing with my toes at the edge of the abyss of uncertainty … of not knowing whether anything I had previously thought or preached were true … of what felt at that time like a sea of ignorance.
I was both angry at God and afraid of God because suddenly I had no grasp. I was forced, kicking and screaming, into my primary theme: Let Go and Let God. I did not want to let go, yet there was no way to hold on. I was spiraling.
Then it hit me … in the weeks and months that followed … that I had discovered a deeper wisdom. It is a wisdom I have seen in my daughter and other family members who have made efforts to add meaning to the tectonic shift in our family. The wisdom, believe it or not, is not based on certainty. It is not arrogant or self-serving, but it is bold. I am boldly resting in the arms of this God about whom I apparently know so little.
And that’s where wisdom begins: in the fear of the Lord … grappling with the uncertainty of life and faith. So I invite you to this wisdom. Enter the uncertain world of faith (which is the truest definition of “faith” itself), and experience the wisdom that begins with the simple act of not knowing.
One of my spiritual mentors at Wellspring is a man named George. He notices patterns, and he pointed out a key pattern once in our worship planning when we were planning a communion service. He said, “Every time Jesus blesses a meal it follows a pattern: he (1) takes that which is being offered (bread and fish in the feeding of the multitudes or bread and cup in the last meal with his disciples), (2) gives thanks (3) breaks the bread and (4) then gives it to others.” While it was something I took for granted, the significance of that pattern did not escape me as George was sharing that insight.
As I have reflected upon that reality, I have come to the opinion that perhaps we don’t really get what our national holiday known as Thanksgiving is all about. We are a society of consumers, and our consumption can be quite conspicuous. We are people who may get what Thanksgiving is all about when counting our blessings, but we tend to turn Christian thinking of gratitude into an antithetical holiday of gluttony in our gatherings and celebrations.
I saw a video that was produced by a church in Charlotte, NC, for Christmas. It was a clever video where a man and woman wake up gift-wrapped and yell, “I’m alive!” The children, too, are gift-wrapped, and as they begin their day, everything is seen as a gift: electricity, running water, breakfast food, a briefcase, and a car. While I respect the message that we must see everything as a gift of God, I had a problem with the video. For every scene, I envisioned people in this world who do not have those things: quality of life, clean water, ample food, transportation, or even shelter. Leave it to me to throw cold water on a good message that challenges us not to take these things for granted.
What I realized was that this reflects our normal American way of doing Thanksgiving. We are thankful for those things that we have that others don’t have. It has become enough to make us thankful for those things that are blessings not afforded to everyone around the world. This is most assuredly NOT the message of Jesus.
Taking. Jesus takes the bread or the cup or the fish. He receives it as a gift. When the child offers the gift of loaves and fish that will become enough to feed the multitudes, Jesus considers it a gift. He receives it on behalf of all whom it will bless.
Giving Thanks. Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Whether in the feeding of the multitudes or the last meal he shares with his followers, he offers a prayer of authentic gratitude. It is an acknowledgment that God is the purveyor of all good gifts and that nothing we have comes from any other source than God.
Giving. Jesus then gives. Even before he takes any for himself, he gives it to others. Jesus is simply not Jesus unless he is focused on others … pouring himself out for others even to the point of death. The end result of his “thanksgiving” is that he is not focused at all on privileges or consumer goods that we so often think of as our blessings. He gives thanks for a God who provides daily bread and abundant living and then seeks to be an agent of that provision himself.
So my thought here is that perhaps the best way of giving thanks is to do more than pause to thank God for the modern conveniences that we consider blessings. Not a little more; a lot more. My thought is that we could perhaps use our season of Thanksgiving to become agents of God’s provision to others.
When we thank God for clean water, perhaps we ought to support efforts to provide clean water for the huge part of our global population that doesn’t have access to clean water. When we thank God for the food we conspicuously consume, what would happen if we made sure that people around the world have access to the nutrition they so desperately need? When we give thanks for health and life, perhaps we should focus our efforts on providing for basic healthcare needs of the millions around the world who suffer and die from ailments we handily treat with vaccinations, prescriptions and even over-the-counter medications.
A friend pointed out several years ago that we would do well if we simply observed the name of the holiday. It is “Thanksgiving” and not “Thanks-taking.” May this season become for us a way to become agents of God’s provision as we “take, offer thanks, break bread and give” our gifts and ourselves wholly for the God who calls us into solidarity with the least of these our sisters and brothers.
That Thanksgiving , my friends, would transform our world! Happy Thanksgiving!
It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore, but we thought him afflicted, struck down by God and tormented. He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. Like sheep we had all wandered away, each going its own way, but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes. (Isaiah 53:4-6, CEB)
The older Greek words for “wound” are τιτρώσκω (titrōskō) + μᾰ (ma) which led to a Greek word like we find in Luke’s telling of the story of the Good Samaritan: τραυματα (traumata (or trauma)- see Luke 10:34). To be wounded is to be traumatized. And we live in a world of trauma. The violent attack on our brothers and sisters at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs brings this violence very close to home (it is only about 10 miles from where my nephew and his wife live, so it is intensely personal for me). We know about trauma.
While the rest of the country moves into debates about guns and domestic violence (conversations which certainly must be had), I am simply struck by how much violence exists in our world and in our culture. Within all levels of government, in almost every level of civil discourse (though “civil” might be a stretch), in all sorts of media (including news and social media), in our families, and in every community, we have increasingly become more violent with each other, whether in word or deed. Our language lacks dignity, and it is simply not possible to have true debate and dialogue by casting phrases of 140 characters or less back and forth at each other.
The tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, in my mind, is a result of the violent culture we tend to perpetuate in our nation and in our world. We, who are the children of God and the followers of Jesus, might just have something to say to those who perpetuate this violence in their speech and in their actions. After all, we are descendants of a Savior and a people who know about trauma!
My first response to this tragedy is to remember that we are people who are called to love God and love our neighbors (those who both love us and hate us). We are called to stay connected, and my first inclination is simply to spend time in prayer. My first and primary connection is to God. My second primary connection is to my neighbor. My prayers have been for my Baptist neighbors in a town I have never visited. Through our United Methodist connection, we have seen that some of the first chaplains on the scene (including the pastor of the Methodist Church in Sutherland Springs) represent well the reach and effective ministry of the United Methodist Church. We will let our hands support those hands that are first-responders to the scene.
We will support our neighbors by resisting from giving into fear and anger. The debates that had arisen by 1:00 PM on Sunday afternoon on social media were based on anger and fear. People were already calling each other names and angrily supporting their own position on everything from military service to domestic violence to gun control. This kind of dialogue was both inappropriate and unhelpful for those who suffered in this terrible tragedy.
My next response is to look more deeply at what is happening. Behind our hate and aggression is an innate fear. We are afraid of losing control. We are afraid of being vulnerable. We are afraid of losing power or prestige or wealth. We are afraid of what might happen if we lay down our false idols to follow the one true God of Isaac and Jacob and Ruth and the Syrophoenician woman and her Jesus.
This coming Sunday, the lectionary leads us to a great passage from Joshua where Joshua challenges the people of Israel to live out their relationship fully with their God by laying down their idols. I find it interesting that they had idols this late in the game. They are the people who had left Egypt, wandered through the wilderness, been given the law by Moses (who subsequently destroyed the idol they had created), and who had marched triumphantly to the drumbeat of God into the land of promise. Now they had idols! Why?
I think the answer for them is the answer for us. Trusting God is hard stuff. It means that we have to let go of our fear and trust that God is capable of leading us to a new land of promise where there is no need for false idols because the one true God is more than enough. As humans, the easiest thing for us is to pick up the idols that make us feel most secure (even when they provide no security whatsoever). The journey I am ALWAYS on is the journey from fear to faith.
What then do I do in the face of this horrific violence? I certainly am not going to perpetuate violence with my speech. While we rightly have debate around the social ills that plague us, I am more interested in reaching out to my neighbors and listening. I will listen for their very real fears and their anxieties. I will listen for the trauma that exists beneath the surface. I will then look beyond the fear and the violence to witness the presence of God that leads us to the new creation.
This past Sunday, we read from the Revelation to John. In talking about those who had been killed and tortured in the great persecution, John says that they are gathered around the throne. Paradoxically, their robes are pure white after having been washed in the Lamb’s blood. I told the congregation that it finally can be distilled down to two words: “God wins!”
When you think about it, our universe was born out of trauma. The explosion of stardust that set our universe into motion was a blast that even science can scarcely imagine. Our own planet was shaped and set in orbit by countless meteoric strikes, and even our moon is but a piece of space debris that ended up orbiting our planet. Our universe is born of trauma.
We humans are born of trauma. The description of birth, to me, a pretty traumatic. We are expelled from the safety of our mother’s womb in a traumatic way. We are jostled, and our first breath is a cry.
In the same way, we who are children of God and joint heirs with Christ somehow get that we are born of trauma. The biblical witness is that even our salvation is born from the wounds of our savior and that there is a gift of life that awaits those who are born of this great tribulation.
So listen, my sisters and brothers, to our God who gives us the message of hope. Listen to your neighbors for their fears and their worries. Then offer them a witness of the way of Christ … a way that is devoid of fear yet which, paradoxically, is born out of trauma and suffering. May it be a way that leads us ultimately to peace and social justice for all of God’s children.
Maybe … just maybe … we will discover a way that moves us from violence to peace … from fear to faith.
Leah and I married young and have been blessed with a beautiful life that includes both laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, but above all, it has been held by the bonds of love. From their birth, I have loved my children more than I ever thought possible. The story that follows here, therefore, is only a small (albeit, life-changing) part of our story.
One year ago today, I took back the promise.
From the time Layne was a little girl, she was always my baby girl. She had a way of looking at me with her big brown eyes and could so easily get Daddy to say “yes” to whatever it was she wanted. She could melt my heart with her sweet little smile, and like most fathers, I would have done anything to provide for her and protect her from all harm. Often to her mother’s and brother’s chagrin, Layne had her daddy wrapped around her little finger. Just as I had done for her brother, the moment I looked into her eyes, I made a promise that I would always be here for her.
In her teenage years, I heard a new song that had come out. It spoke my feelings as a father to a beautiful daughter. It was the song Baby Girl by Will Hoge. Some years later, I had the opportunity to create my own ringtones, and for Layne, I created the ringtone that is the chorus of that song. It is still my ringtone for Layne today.
Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl
Then she grew into a young lady, and suddenly there was another Jeff involved in her life. This was someone who brought a smile to her face greater than I ever thought possible. It was evident early on that she and Jeff were in love. She moved to Denver to be closer to him at the Air Force Academy, and she moved there taking my promise to watch over her, provide for her and protect her. Even if it meant stepping out of meetings, I always answered my phone when she called, and she knew her mom and I would be on the next plane, if she needed us.
But please understand this is not about whether Layne is capable of taking care of herself. She learned from her mother that she can do anything she sets her mind to do, and her adventures in this world are certainly not dependent upon having a man make it happen. This is about the promise of a father to be present to his children, no matter what.
Layne’s brother, Philip, and sister-in-law, Magen, were wed on 26 June 2010, and it was on that Thursday, 24 June, that Jeff wanted to have a talk with me. He had a velvet bag with him, and in it was a box. Everyone conveniently knew to be gone so that Jeff and I spent part of the evening alone. We sat on the back porch of the cabin in Salado, Texas, where everyone was staying, and he said, “I want to talk to you about what is in this bag.”
I told him to go ahead. He then told me about how much he loved Layne and the plans he and Layne had discussed. He then showed me the ring and asked me if I would accept his promise to take care of my daughter … my baby girl … always to be present to her and love her for the rest of their lives. He was waiting until after Philip’s and Magen’s wedding to propose, but he wanted my blessing.
We talked about how difficult relationships can be. We talked about his future career (which was yet to unfold) in the Air Force and about the stresses they would encounter. We talked about resources and tools that might be necessary to maintain a strong relationship and build a strong family. Of course, I was doing more of the talking at that point, but he was ready with the promise. He understood and assured me that I would not be disappointed in how he would fulfill that promise.
Finally, we talked about what he would call us. Jeff had been raised by Christian parents who taught him that respect for people his parents’ age always meant he would call them by title and name. He alternated between calling me Mr. Smith and Dr. Smith. He called Leah Mrs. Smith. We had previously told him that we gladly went by Jeff and Leah, but he said that would just never do. So this was my chance. I told him that I would only grant my blessing and accept his promise to love and care for my daughter in marriage if he never again called us those formal names. Without batting an eye, he said, “Fine, you can be Dad2 and she will be Mom2.” Later, we would just become Mom and Dad.
A blessing was granted and a promise was made. And Jeff fulfilled that promise to the fullest. They were married on 11 June 2011, and he loved Layne in the ensuing five years with a greater love than most get to experience in a lifetime. Together they explored every part of their world. He was always fascinated with new outdoor adventures. They learned new things, they tried new foods and new customs, and they made friends that will last a lifetime.
When KB was born, she was blessed with a daddy like none other. Jeff loved his baby girl with as much enthusiasm and love as I loved my baby girl. She has so much of her daddy in her. She can make us laugh and cry just like he did.
Then it happened. The phone call at 3:15 AM a year ago on 23 September. Jeff had died, and our baby girl’s world was shattered. By 5:30 AM, we were at the airport ready to board the next plane that would begin the longest flight of our lives … trying to get to not just one baby girl, but both of our baby girls.
Jeff died in Guam, and because of delays in the autopsy, he wasn’t returned to us until 4 October. Between the time he had died and his dignified transfer back to Hawaii, KB had turned 3 and the squadron had thrown her an over-the-top birthday party. Then the day arrived.
The two men who had promised to take care of my baby girl could do nothing at that moment to keep her world from shattering. All I could do was stand and watch … practicing presence, but wanting to protect them and make all of this just go away.
Following the dignified transfer and a luncheon, we then got to see him in the hangar. He was lying in state just below the canopy of the Raptor bearing his name. Layne went in with two of their closest friends to see him first and within a few minutes, we joined her. I tarried a bit and then had the chance to see him … to speak to him. In my mind, I had already recounted the promises and the dreams he had shared with me. I stood by the casket and touched his chest, and said, “It’s OK, Son. I’ve got this. I’ll take back that promise now.”
He had lived up to his promise to be the son-in-law I expected him to be, and it was my turn to be the father-in-law he expected me to be. It was my job to make sure the promise he had made to care for his wife and children was still kept.
So I am now the keeper of the promise. And while Layne is returning to the island exactly one year to the day that her beloved husband came home to that island, I will still hold the promise even from a distance. As it has been in the past, it is the promise of presence, no matter the miles that separate us.
Maybe … just maybe … this is what God does for us. We are called to live in covenant love with God and one another. We make promises about how we will be present to one another, to sustain one another, and to care for one another. We try our best, and sometimes, we are successful in fulfilling our promises. At other times, however, we are weak. Sometimes there are things that happen beyond our control, and there is no way finally to fulfill the promise.
It is then that God gently touches us and says, “It’s OK, my child. I’ve got this.” And the promise is fulfilled because God is a God of the Eternal Promise. This is Emmanuel … our God who promises to be with us, no matter what we face.
So to my precious family and to everyone to whom I have made promises, I know I am merely mortal and finally incapable of keeping the promises like I want them kept. But we have a God who takes those promises, adds to them the promise of a life that is eternal and abundant, and empowers us to live into the eternal promise of God’s grace-filled presence.
Jeff, you are missed so much. Our hearts still ache at the mention of your name, but we always want to hear your name and the stories people tell about you. And we are living into the promise to care for and love your family in a way that honors your memory. Layne is still my baby girl, and your children have a family that loves them more than life itself.
Layne, here is a secret you may not know. These are the lyrics of the first verse of the song and the chorus. This is why I chose the song. It’s your song, Baby Girl!
May the sunlight find your face
Even when the rain does fall
And get back on your feet again
Every time you slip and fall
Keep your heart wide open
And always taking in
And even when it’s broken
Be strong enough to fix it up again
Oh little baby girl
Sweet little baby girl
Be strong in this great big world
Oh little baby girl
There is something ironic happening within my own denomination. I was born into the Methodist Church, and I was seven years old when the denomination united with the Evangelical United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. My maternal grandmother and her parents were German (her parents having immigrated at the very turn of the 20th century), so having being United Methodist has suited me well as we joined the anglo-saxon (Anglican) forces with the German (Lutheran-descended EUB) forces. It was like this was the denomination that just had my name written all over it!
It was into this tradition that I was baptized and confirmed. It was in this tradition that I heard the call of God to be a pastoral leader in the church. It was this denomination and tradition into which I was ordained. It was in this tradition that I first learned of the powerful importance of grace.
It was early in my ministry when I was looking for the perfect closing salutation to correspondence. In a day that preceded email or digital communication of any sort, I sought to have something that far exceeded the “sincerely” normally found at the close of a letter. I looked at various religious options (I was a new member of the clergy, after all, and I couldn’t let people down with something that was either too lame or too over the top). After careful consideration, I finally decided upon a single word: Grace.
In time, I even took the closing of my correspondence to the next level, and I began to wrap the upper loop of the “J” in Jeff around the word grace. It was something that came to symbolize for me that grace was at the heart of everything I did, and grace was what defined my ministry.
Without spending too much space here covering the full theology of grace and its many formulations in the Wesleyan tradition, suffice it to say that I spent the ensuing years of my ministry learning about the nuances and boldness of grace. I learned about the merciful and terribly demanding nature of grace. I learned about how grace is not just that saving power of God; I learned that grace is the power to transform us and shape us and move us closer to the heart of God. A good Methodist here inserts a thought of “Christian perfection.” (Google it, if it doesn’t make sense).
And grace is the way in which we relate to one another. The readings for this Sunday have led me in two directions at once, so I am addressing one here and taking a slightly different direction with the sermon this week. The two passages we (meaning, my worship planning team and I) have settled on are Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35.
In Romans, Paul is talking about people who are stronger and weaker and people who are simply different from one another. He is talking about people who have different opinions or thoughts (dare we say theology?) and how we are called to live in community with one another regardless of what day we consider to be holy or what food or drink we feel best enhances our faith journey. He asks who we are to judge or restrict someone else’s servants, and by that he means those who serve Christ and who do not serve the person who is judging. He challenges us to live in grace with one another.
In Matthew, Peter has come to the end of this chapter on reconciliation asking how many times we have to forgive our brother or sister. He assumes that the number seven sounds like a “perfect” number of times, so he offers that up. And Jesus answers that it is so much more than that. Then he tells a parable of a man who is forgiven by a king over a debt of 10,000 bags of gold (let’s just say a gazillion dollars), but the forgiven man turns around an puts someone else in prison who owes him only $10.00. Jesus says it’s about to get bad for the guy who was given grace over the bazillion dollars yet who failed to share that grace with the $10 debtor.
And my point is this:
THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PROCLAIMS GRACE AS CENTRAL TO OUR CORE IDENTITY, YET WE FAIL TO PRACTICE GRACE WITH ONE ANOTHER AND ACTUALLY HAVE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT PARTING WAYS IN THE CHURCH.
We want to think that the issues we face have to do with a divide over homosexuality, but I have come to the conclusion that it is less about homosexuality and much more about our inability to make room at the table for people who are very different from us. We, who are the literal beneficiaries of grace, have failed to be benefactors of grace in our common life together. Most people know where I stand on the issues of inclusiveness, but I am here saying that my form of inclusiveness is to draw the circle wide enough to include people who don’t share my views on inclusiveness. (It’s ok to spend some time re-reading that … I had to, as well).
I think perhaps Jesus’ and Paul’s admonitions to us might be taken to heart. It’s going to get bad for us who have been forgiven the bazillion dollar debt when we fail to overlook the $10 debt and fail to invite our debtors to join us for a meal at the table. Are we people of grace or are we not?
So the irony here is that the church that proclaims grace as a core part of its theological and doctrinal underpinnings is having a hard time living into its legacy of grace!
I am a home-key typist (people over 50 know what that means), and there are times that I get typing so fast that, when I go to type United Methodist Church, I slip and instead call it the Untied Methodist Church. Sometimes I wonder if we are becoming more untied than united, but I am hopeful. I still believe in and make every effort to live by grace! Perhaps … just perhaps … God’s prevenient grace will shine on my beloved church once more and remind us that we are all about …