CM: Johnny the Outlaw

“Bloody Bill” Anderson, Missouri bushwacker

Johnny the Outlaw

When most people think of hospice, they imagine elderly people living out their last days. But we’ve had a run of young people dying of alcohol and drug abuse recently. It’s a real wake-up call when you sit at the bedside of a man or woman the same age as one of your children and watch them fade away.

Johnny was one of those. From all indications, Johnny had been a wild man. He showed some of that during his two stints on hospice care. He fought with his family, fought with his nurses, got kicked out of three nursing homes (that I know of), and had to have sitters in the hospital to keep him from getting out of bed and wandering down the hallway. At best, in this stage of his life, he tolerated others.

One day when I visited him, Johnny had become paranoid about his bank account. He pestered me over and over again to lend him my phone so that he could check his bank balance. His mother had already dealt with the issue and I kept trying to tell him that, but he wouldn’t trust any answer. It was not an appropriate use of my work phone, so I told him I couldn’t do it anyway. Well, he immediately shut me out, mumbling that he’d like me to leave.

Johnny never cut his hair. He wore long locks that made him look like the outlaw he was, especially when wearing one of his fancy cowboy hats. Tall and impossibly thin, he cut through life like a whirlwind, I was told, and the little of him that I knew confirmed that impression.

At the very end of his life, Johnny spent a few weeks — a long stretch — in the hospital. At first he became fidgety and restless as he dealt with pain and his body revolting against the abuse to which he had subjected it. Eventually, with his strength declining and the comfort of appropriate care and medication, he calmed down. He lay quietly for days and days and days.

During that time, I visited with members of his family. Previously, they had been forced to set boundaries and keep their distance, but now that it was safe for them they came and showed real love and devotion, sitting for long hours at his bedside and keeping vigil. Some even came from out of town to be with him. They told me that Johnny had been a bright, fun-loving, artistic and creative child. In his late teens, demon alcohol pounced and set him on a chaotic roller coaster ride for the next twenty years. He never lost his charm, but it was often overwhelmed by the rage and unpredictable behavior that arose from his addictions.

When Johnny died, I went and sat with his mom and sister. We prayed. I helped them understand the next steps. They asked if I would join their family for a brief viewing before he was cremated. Of course, I said.

A few days later Johnny’s mother called me and said there had been a change of plans. When funeral homes do a family viewing before cremation, they place the body in a cheap, plain box and the whole thing is a pretty sad and stark affair. She told me she couldn’t do that. She would not put her son in a cardboard box. He deserved better than that. So they were going to have a public viewing in a real casket, with flowers and time for the family to be together. I put it on my calendar.

I was surprised at how many people were there. Family from out of state had come, and there were aunts and uncles and cousins and friends — all manner of people there to see Johnny and to catch up with each other. I met Johnny’s biological father, and he showed me pictures of Johnny as a baby. “I held him when he was born,” he said with cracking voice. “I had to be here to be with him today.”

I saw lots of pictures — including many of Johnny as a child when life was good and he won everyone’s heart. I heard lots of people telling stories, and it was clear from all the laughter and fondness that Johnny did indeed have the kind of charm that made him attractive and made his story so tragic. Mom gave me a picture of him in a fancy cowboy hat, locks streaming down, mischievous look in his eye — an outlaw all the way.

At one point, they asked me to pray, and we gathered around his casket and I did. If there was a dry eye, I didn’t see one. I committed Johnny into God’s care and asked that God would comfort him for all the trials he had known in his too-short life.

I remembered the thief on the cross. He was an outlaw too.

You know, Lord, I’m not perfect, some even call me no count
But I’ll tell you, I believe a man is judged by what’s in his heart, and not his bank account
So if this is what religion is, a big car, a suit and a tie
Then I might as well forget it Lord, ’cause I can’t qualify
Oh, by the way, Lord, right before they kicked me out, didn’t I see a picture of you?
With sandals and a beard, believe you had long hair too
Well, this is Paycheck, signing off
I’ll be seein’ you Lord
I hope…
* The Outlaw’s Prayer, Johnny Paycheck

CM – Sermon: Epiphany VI — Standing Firm in Christ

Guerinca, Picasso

Sermon: Epiphany VI — Standing Firm in Christ

The Lord be with you

Bob Dylan once wrote: “Democracy don’t rule the world, you better get that in your head. This world is ruled by violence but I guess that’s better left unsaid…”

One of the metaphors that the Bible uses about life in this age is that it is a battle. Conflict and violence have always been a part of life, sad as that may be. Many of us have led relatively peaceful lives, thanks be to God, but I would wager that most of us here know someone, whether in our families or among our friends and acquaintances, that has been a victim of violence. We know people who died or were wounded serving their country in the military. We know people who have been scarred by domestic violence. Criminal violence or sexual violence touch our communities almost daily. People of all ages and all backgrounds find themselves victimized. If we stop and think about it, life can be pretty scary sometimes. There are battles going on all around us.

God’s plan for creation did not include this kind of violence, pain, and death. God made this world to enjoy shalom — peace, wholeness, a life that is allowed to flourish and thrive without fear. In the biblical story it wasn’t long, though, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden that violence took root. Cain murdered Abel, followed by a whole line of people exercising violent control over others. We are only six chapters deep into the story when we read, “Now the earth was filled with violence.”

From then on, we read violent story after violent story, culminating in the Son of God himself being killed violently by crucifixion. In many ways, if we read it thoughtfully, the Bible is a dark and brutal book, an ongoing tale of human inhumanity to other humans, to the earth’s creatures, and to the earth itself.

In today’s scripture, Paul pulls back the curtain on all that conflict, cruelty, and destructiveness. He shows us that behind the scenes there are forces at work, cosmic powers of chaos that are actively fighting against the shalom that God intends for our lives and for this world. Our struggle in this life is not, in the final analysis, Paul says, against other people with whom we may fight. It is agains “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of darkness, and the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”

It is against these forces that Paul says we must stand. So far in Ephesians we have talked about sitting in Christ in the heavenly places, walking in Christ in our daily lives, and now we are going to talk about standing strong in Christ in the midst of the spiritual battle of life.

This battle with the powers of darkness was a chief characteristic of Martin Luther’s life. My favorite biography of Luther is called, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Its author describes the reformer in these words:

Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind until the end. …Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and World. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. …The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.

You can’t sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and miss the fact that Luther saw all Christians engaged in a battle with the Evil One and the spiritual forces of darkness.

In our own day, Dr. Richard Beck from Abilene Christian University has written a book called, Reviving Old Scratch. Beck, who has been sympathetic with progressive Christians who seek social justice, came to see that there is something missing in their approach. They miss the fundamental reality that there are evil forces in the spiritual realm that oppose justice and inclusion. These forces go deeper than people, deeper than the systems and structures people set up. There is a satanic force at work in the world.

The word “satan” means the one who opposes. And so, Richard Beck says,

  • Hate is the satan of love.
  • Exclusion is the satan of inclusion.
  • War is the satan of peace.
  • Oppression is the satan of justice.
  • Tearing down is the satan of building up.
  • Competition is the satan of cooperation.
  • Revenge is the satan of mercy. Harm is the satan of care.
  • Hostility is the satan of reconciliation.
  • There is a satan to the kingdom of God.
  • If you follow Jesus, you know there is anti-Jesus.

Simply put, there are forces working against the kingdom of God in this world. They are working against shalom. Whereas God’s plan in Christ is to bring life from death, to renew all creation and make us whole, allowing us to flourish as the creatures God made us to be, the satanic forces work to bring chaos, disintegration, destruction, and death.

And so, Paul tells us here in Ephesians, we must put on the armor of the gospel each day as we go about our lives. The gospel of truth. The gospel of right living. The gospel of peace and reconciliation. The gospel of faith, not trusting our own strength but the power of God. The gospel of salvation. The gospel of the Spirit and God’s word.

The harder the fight becomes, Paul is telling us, the deeper we must go into the gospel. The more we find ourselves under enemy attack, the closer we must get to Christ. The more the world in us and around us threatens to spin off into chaos, the more we must cling to shalom that God gives us through the Holy Spirit.

Now this all sounds so grand, so noble, so lofty — all this talk of great battles and cosmic powers. But you and I both know that the battle is fought in the trenches. It starts in our own hearts, with the battles we face within ourselves: Will I be a person of faith or self-reliance? Will I be a person of hope or despair? Will I be a person of love or selfishness?

It works itself out in our closest relationships and encounters: Will I think kindly of others or will I look down on them? Will I listen to others or will I despise their contribution? Will I speak honestly and kindly, or will my words be deceptive, cutting, and hurtful? Will I be helpful and available to others, or will I close myself off and think that they owe me something instead?

Unfortunately, none of us will get through this conflict unscathed. We will be wounded and we will wound others. But once again, that brings us back to the gospel, the gospel of forgiveness and cleansing, the gospel of dying to sin daily and rising again to walk in newness of life. The gospel of Christ, seated at the Father’s right hand, ruling over all the powers that threaten God’s shalom.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.

May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom.

CM – The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: February 15, 2020

The IM Saturday Monks Brunch: February 15, 2020

Happy Valentine’s Day, a day late.

Connecticut-based photographer JoAnn Marrero of From Labor to Love, has gone viral for her loveable Valentine’s Day chocolate photoshoot, which features a giant heart-shaped chocolate box filled with adorable babies dressed in red ties and headbands.

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about love

The earliest possible origin story of Valentine’s Day is the pagan holiday Lupercalia. Occurring for centuries in the middle of February, the holiday celebrates fertility. Men would strip naked and sacrifice a goat and dog. Young boys would then take strips of hide from the sacrificed animals and use it to whip young women, to promote fertility.

Lupercalia was popular and one of the few pagan holidays still celebrated 150 years after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire.

When Pope Gelasius came to power in the late fifth century he put an end to Lupercalia. Soon after, the Catholic church declared February 14 to be a day of feasts to celebrate the martyred Saint Valentine.

We’re all a little weird, and life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

• Dr. Seuss

That reminds me — Valentine’s Day cards have sometimes been a bit creepy.

Not too many love songs better than this one, written by the incomparable Dolly Parton and sung by one of the great pop voices of my lifetime: Whitney Houston

And, in the end, here’s what it’s really all about…

Other stuff from the week…

Mice scrap over a crumb of food on a London Underground station platform. The fight lasted a split second, and the mice went their separate ways. This photo was the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year LUMIX People’s Choice Award. (Sam Rowley / Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

Handler Crystal Murray-Klas sits with Siba, the standard poodle who won best in show during the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York on Feb. 11. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

Academy Award winner for Best Picture: Parasite

From the review by Richard Roeper at The Chicago Sun-Times:

This is a film of such dramatic power and innovative comedy and romantic poetry and melancholy beauty that upon exiting a screening, you might well feel the urge to tell everyone in the lobby of the multiplex to delay their plans to check out some mainstream offering because if they truly love cinema, they should see THIS movie, immediately.

Pet…squirrels?

Pete the squirrel, who was a pet of President Harding. Photo from the Library of Congress/LC-DIG-hec-42488

From Atlas Obscura:

In 1722, a pet squirrel named Mungo passed away. It was a tragedy: Mungo escaped its confines and met its fate at the teeth of a dog. Benjamin Franklin, friend of the owner, immortalized the squirrel with a tribute.

“Few squirrels were better accomplished, for he had a good education, had traveled far, and seen much of the world.” Franklin wrote, adding, “Thou art fallen by the fangs of wanton, cruel Ranger!”

Mourning a squirrel’s death wasn’t as uncommon as you might think when Franklin wrote Mungo’s eulogy; in the 18th- and 19th centuries, squirrels were fixtures in American homes, especially for children. While colonial Americans kept many types of wild animals as pets, squirrels “were the most popular,” according to Katherine Grier’s Pets in America, being relatively easy to keep.

And now, introducing “Self-Care Barbie”

From Religion News Service:

Barbie has always filled the role that we now know as an Instagram influencer. In the ’60s she was a “swinger” in a Carnaby Street cape; in the ’80s she adopted aerobic instructor togs; by the ’90s she was pantsuited up to run for president. With her impossible physical proportions that no gym could possibly provide, and her artificial hauteur, she showed the way to the ideal life through unattainable glamour.

But last week, Mattel announced a new iteration, “Self-Care Barbie,” that transforms the company’s 61-year-old manikin into a being defined by the moral effort of such perfection. Created in partnership with the meditation app Headspace (which has also collaborated with Weight Watchers on the diet company’s wellness-focused rebranding), Self-Care Barbie, according to Mattel’s press release, informs us that the doll is designed to “introduce girls to self-care through play.”

There are actually four dolls to add to one’s shelf in the Self-Care collection. There’s a “spa doll,” who comes with a robe, and plenty of magazines to read, as well as adorable cucumber sunglasses. There’s a “fitness doll,” whose form-fitting gym kit comes with a protein bar that her plastic esophagus is unable to consume. There’s a “pampering doll,” who gets bath products and a loofah.

Finally, there is a “wellness dream” doll, who has a pillow and sleep mask. (To be fair, my personal wellness dream involves sleeping until noon). All dolls come with adorable puppies. (Also, in my mind, a reasonable form of self-care).

The four most wonderful words heard each February…

Gerrit Cole, NY Yankees. Gerrit Cole, NY Yankees. On Sept 18, 2019, Cole became the 18th pitcher in major league history to strike out at least 300 batters in a season. On Dec 16, 2019, Cole signed a $324 million contract with the Yankees, the largest contract in major league history for a pitcher.

“Pitchers and catchers report” are those words, of course. And we heard them this week, as Major League Baseball Spring Training opened across Florida and Arizona.

Gail and I will be in Tampa next Saturday to watch the Spring Training opener between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays. I cannot wait to hear the sound of baseballs smacking in mitts and the crack of the bat. To have a beer and a brat, to look over a field of dreams under blue skies and enjoy a leisurely afternoon of the greatest game ever.

Ah, Fans, let not the Quarry but the Chase
Be that to which most fondly we aspire!
For us not Stake, but Game; not Goal, but Race—
THIS is the end of every fan’s desire.

From A Ballad of Baseball Burdens by Franklin Pierce Adams

On my winter playlist…

From the upcoming album, American Standard

CM – Another Look: Give Us This Day…

I know what it means to live week to week, paycheck to paycheck.

I don’t know what it means to live day to day, without guarantee of a paycheck.

I don’t know what it means to be completely dependent on grace and mercy. I may indeed be completely dependent, but I seldom realize it. I can think about tomorrow with some confidence. I can finish one meal while already looking forward to the next one. Sure, I’m fully aware there’s no guarantee. Nevertheless, I’m not sure the word “needy” has ever really applied when it comes to the way I actually go about my business and function each day.

This makes it hard for me to grasp the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Today, at lunchtime I sat in the hallway of a nursing home. The middle aged man in front of me was sleeping with his chin on his chest, slumped down in a high-backed wheelchair. He has a terrible disease, one which causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in his brain. He has been in a facility for years now, has done relatively well for someone with his disease, but there he is. And there he will be tomorrow, the next day, and the day after, until who knows when. Day after day after day.

And there I am, sitting in front of him, praying the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s a prayer he knows and sometimes when I pray it with him I get intimations that he understands and is following along. A word of it occasionally wiggles its way out of his mouth. He may be coherent enough to say thank you for when I pray. But most of the time he just sits there with his chin on his chest, or he lies on his bed on his side, curled up and staring at the wall.

I’ve met his wife and his pastor. Each of them comes at various times to feed him and sit with him. The pastor told me he often has to forcibly lift his head, fighting stern resistance to get food to his mouth. He never knows when the patient might have an outburst. It’s a characteristic of his disease. He might flail his hands violently and buddy you better get out of the way. The minister took it flush on the jaw once. Human strength, even in extremis, is remarkable. It can hurt you. Most of the time it turns out there’s no problem at all in the dining room, and there, sitting in his high-backed wheelchair he gets his daily bread.

Today in the hallway, I choke a little just saying the words.

I know that I’m going to walk out that door in just a few moments. I’ll walk down the hall, walk to my car, drive to my next visit and, sooner or later I’ll stop somewhere and have lunch. I’ll use my debit card, order a salad, and sit in my car and eat it. With my own hands, at a place of my choosing, using my own money, mobility, and sense. Later this week, my employer will deposit another paycheck in my bank, and I’ll be able to have lunch each day for the foreseeable future. Maybe even buy someone else lunch on occasion.

As a caregiver, I don’t often have to deal with this kind of survivor’s guilt, but that’s what it feels like today. It feels wrong for me to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” with this man in this place on this day because I sense the disconnect when I say that little word, “us.” It feels like I ought to say, “Give him his daily bread, Lord, I’m covered.”

I could get all spiritual here and start talking like I used to talk: I’m needy too. I’m just a beggar. I need grace and mercy just as much as the next person. If God doesn’t provide for me, I’m sunk. There is no inherent difference between my patient in the nursing home and me. He just has a physical condition that makes his daily need for God’s grace and mercy apparent. If I could look behind the scenes and see all the ways God protects me and cares for me, I would understand that I too, am just the same as the man in the high-backed wheelchair.

All true enough, but largely irrelevant to the way most of us live and think each day. When we do say it, it’s mostly spiritual posturing, the old humble bit, the right language to draw a knowing nod from those in our crowd. The words cover an existential fear so pure we’re obliged to avoid it. It’s possible I won’t really know the meaning of “Give us this day our daily bread” until I require someone to force my head back and put a spoon of puréed mush in my mouth. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to that, whether it happens tomorrow or twenty five years from now.

Will someone come and wheel me to the dining room then? Will someone sit with me and perform that lowly service? Will someone pray the Lord’s Prayer with me when I can only occasionally mutter a word or two in recognition of it? And will they find themselves choking when they get to the line, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

I can only hope so. That’s probably really what I’m praying for as I sit in this nursing home and try not to see myself in that high-backed wheelchair.

Until then I eat every lunch in defiance and fear of that day.

CM – Another Look: The Arithmetic of Grace

The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

• Deuteronomy 7:7-8, NASB

Peter W. Marty once wrote, “In a memorable Dennis the Menace cartoon, Dennis and his friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house loaded up with a plate full of cookies. Joey turns to Dennis and says, ‘I wonder what we did to deserve this.’ Dennis is quick to reply, ‘Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice.’ So goes the arithmetic of grace.” (The World of Grace)

Dennis’ sentiment captures what I have always loved about the sentence from Deuteronomy 7 cited above, though I have not meditated on it or internalized nearly enough. If you take out all the intervening clauses in the verse and boil down what God is saying to Israel, what you have is, “I love you…because I love you.” It’s as simple, and profound, as that.

It’s not because we’re nice. He loves us because he loves us. Period. It’s who God is that makes the difference in matters of love, grace, and choice.

And who is he? A remarkably indiscriminate lover! After all, he loves you and me.

The Biblical record is clear from beginning to end, and well-summarized in these NT words: “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)

By “poor” he means not only those who have few material or monetary resources. All kinds of poverty are in view here — the intellectually poor, the morally poor, the relationally poor, the reputationally poor. In order to show that he does not discriminate against anyone, he has made a special effort to reach out to those who are, in our eyes, the most unlovely and undeserving.

God’s team roster is set forth in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). In the world’s eyes at least, we are talent-poor (poor in spirit, mourners, meek, crushed by injustice) and we are power-poor — we try to engage the world with inadequate, futile strategies (through extending mercy, seeking purity of heart, acting as peacemakers). Ultimately, we are the “losers” (persecuted, insulted, accused). Nevertheless, by his love and grace, Jesus calls us “blessed.”

Similarly, the Hebrew people God spoke to in Deuteronomy 7 were poor. Their ancestors had been homeless wanderers. Their parents and grandparents had become slaves, the dregs of society, under foreign rulers in Egypt. After about four hundred years of that humiliation, God intervened and delivered them in spectacular fashion from their bondage by pure grace.

You might think that would have made them grateful, but instead they became a group of unruly complainers wandering through the desert. Moses tried to shape them up during a long camp-out at Mt. Sinai, but they proved so unmanageable he had to plead with God at one point not to wipe them out in divine frustration and wrath. When they left Sinai to go to the Promised Land of Canaan, all but a few of them rebelled so badly they ended up wasting forty years walking the desert in circles. Eventually, Israel wore even poor Moses down. One day he’d had enough of their bitching and moaning, and he blew up in angry, exasperated unbelief — an act that won him a grave in the wilderness.

And, these were the people to whom God said, “[I] wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. [I] did it out of sheer love…” (The Message) Tens of thousands of dirty-faced Dennis the Menaces got full plates of cookies because of who God is, not because they were so nice.

And guess what? The new life we have received in Jesus came the same way. There we are one day, playing in the yard, fighting and hollering, breaking stuff, getting all dirty and tearing holes in our jeans, when Mrs. Wilson opens the door and hollers out,”Hey kids, would you like some cookies? I just made some. Come and get ’em!” And if we have any sense at all, we stop what we’re doing immediately and race to see who can get there first.

Oh, there’s nothing like the taste of fresh cookies, washed down with cold milk!

The problem is, we start thinking we must be pretty special to deserve such a treat. We strut our stuff around the neighborhood and brag on the gift we received. “Why the big smile?” the kid down the street asks. “Mrs. Wilson just gave us cookies!” we exclaim. “Man, were they good!” And for some reason, we get all caught up in that warm feeling in our belly and start to think we must be pretty good kids to deserve such a treat.

Then we look up, and see that Mrs. Wilson has come out of her house again, and this time she’s offering cookies to the neighbor children who live behind us. Those kids are a pain in the butt! In fact, they’re weird. They dress and talk differently and they don’t fit in to our games very well. We try to stay away from them, but sometimes we can’t and it seems like we always end up fighting and yelling. It really gripes us that they get cookies too.

We forget the “grace” part. Remember? Mrs. Wilson’s the nice one, not me.

Peter Marty quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who once said, “I’m not so worried about God loving me less. It is the prospect of God loving that other person I can’t stand, just as much as God might love me.” He then comments,

The most outstanding feature of God’s grace is its indiscriminate character. I’m thoroughly convinced of this, even if I cannot always appreciate it. All of the factors that determine how God might show favor rest solely on God’s wishes. Our capacity to discriminate, establish devilish screening devices, and discern unpalatable idiosyncrasies in other people cannot hold back God’s grace. Jesus refused to respect the boundaries people set up between respectable and disreputable people, between right-thinking and wrong-thinking people. In the end, it was utterances like his “prostitutes and tax-collectors entering the kingdom before the rest of us” that — literally — hung him. (The Wideness of Love)

If receiving grace doesn’t make us both grateful and gracious, we really haven’t grasped grace.

If, in our lives, we don’t “cause [our] rain to fall on both the just and the unjust,” we are not following the One who does just that. Lavishly. Freely. Indiscriminately.

If we’re upset that Mrs. Wilson is sharing her cookies with kids we don’t like, we’ve probably developed the opinion that we deserve them more. And that some don’t deserve them at all.

Hey, if you’ve got a head full of rules about who deserves the cookies and who doesn’t, I don’t think you have much room in there for a guy like Jesus. He loves us because he loves us.

And that’s the whole story.

CM: An open invitation to evangelical supporters of President Trump…

Today, I extend an open invitation to all conservative evangelical Christians out there who support our current president.

From your perspective as an evangelical, talk to us about President Trump’s behavior and words at the National Prayer Breakfast last week.

In order to help you feel like this is a safe and open place for you to contribute your thoughts —

The only comments allowed today are those that come from SUPPORTERS of President Trump. And there will be no follow-up posts critiquing the comments that come today.

In case anyone missed it, Donald J. Trump, in a spirit of triumph over his “enemies,” waved his acquittal headline as he walked in the National Prayer Breakfast and called his political opponents “very dishonest and corrupt people.” He claimed that they had “put themselves ahead of our great country” in ways that hurt many people, including himself and his family.

Furthermore, he attacked them in terms of their religion. In a not-so-veiled reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was sitting right near him, he said he does not like people who say they pray for you when they really don’t. Pelosi had said in December that she prays regularly for the president. Later, after the breakfast, in the East Room, the president said, “I doubt she prays at all.”

Referring to Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict him at his impeachment trial, the president said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” Romney had said his faith led him to make a decision of conscience.

All of this is ironic, given that the Prayer Breakfast has always been a bipartisan affair, specifically designed to bring people together despite their differences.

Further adding to the irony, the theme of this year’s Breakfast was “Love Your Enemies.” Conservative author Arthur Brookes, who gave one of the addresses, warned that our nation faces a “crisis of contempt and polarization.” He reminded those attending that Jesus called us to love and not just tolerate our enemies. He challenged the leaders present to “show people what leadership is all about” by answering hatred with love.

President Trump’s remarks, which followed, began with these words: “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you.” Then he launched into his speech against his opponents and in defense of religious liberty and his record in supporting religious causes.

My evangelical, President Trump-supporting friends, how do you respond to this?

Here’s what Pastor Robert Jeffress had to say, in support of the president:

Jeffress told ABC that Trump “was completely right in what he said.”

“This president, he absolutely hates phoniness; he can smell it a mile away,” Jeffress said in a separate appearance on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” on Friday. “The president thinks there’s something inherently phony about saying you’re praying for him when you’re working to destroy him.”

He added that “the Bible supports his skepticism,” citing James 3:10, which reads, according to the New International Version, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

Pelosi, who also attended the breakfast, defended her prayers for Trump.

“He really needs our prayers,” she said after the event. “So he can say whatever he wants, but I do pray for him and I do so sincerely and without anguish, gently, that’s the way I pray for everybody else.”

Jeffress also supported Trump’s comments about not loving his enemies, saying he told Trump this week: “Mr. President, to love your enemies means to want God’s best for them, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be unified with them. Truth divides people.”

Jeffress also criticized Sen. Mitt Romney‘s (R-Utah) vote for Trump’s impeachment. Romney, before becoming the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on Wednesday, said “God demanded it of me.”

Jeffress told ABC that Romney’s vote “seems more based on self-promotion than religious beliefs.”

Another evangelical thought differently. Michael Gerson, who has been a consistent critic of the president and his evangelical supporters, wrote: “…the president again displayed a remarkable ability to corrupt, distort and discredit every institution he touches. The prayer breakfast was intended to foster personal connections across party differences. Trump turned it into a performative platform to express his rage and pride — the negation of a Christian ethic.”

I’m wondering what you think about all of this.

You may or may not know that I myself am a “never-Trump” person. I have been flabbergasted, not only that he got elected, but that he has garnered so much support from people of evangelical faith. In fact, that has been more of a concern for me than the president himself. As a post-evangelical, it has only confirmed and reinforced my decision to say good-bye to American evangelicalism. This behavior at the National Prayer Breakfast, it seems to me, would be a red line for those who trust and follow Jesus, and who take his words seriously.

But that’s me. And that’s all I’m going to say today.

I want to hear ONLY from supporters of President Trump in this semi-Open Forum.

Maybe you will defend his remarks and his stance, or maybe you will find them indefensible. Perhaps they do represent a “red line” for you that forces you to reconsider your support. Or maybe you think there are other, more important factors to consider.

At any rate, I will moderate closely today to make sure that you have complete freedom to express your views without any arguments from those who do not support President Trump.

I urge commenters who do not support the President to exercise restraint and just pay attention to what others are saying, no matter how strongly you may disagree.

And that includes me. My stance today is to be a listener only.

Now it’s your turn. Go.

CM – Sermon: Epiphany V — Three ways of walking in Christ

Stations of the Cross, Gethsemani Abbey (2017)

Sermon: Epiphany V — What is involved in walking in Christ?

The Lord be with you.

Health experts tell us there are many benefits to walking. Walking is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise. It can be done almost anywhere and at any time. It is safer than other forms of exercise, creating less stress and strain on your body. Walking is available to anyone who can do it –you don’t need a lot of equipment beyond a comfortable pair of shoes, and you don’t need to join a gym or find a facility or follow some complicated regimen.

Walking can also provide a means of engaging other people. When you walk side by side with a friend or a group of companions, it gives you a chance to talk and share with each other. But walking alone can be beneficial too. Taking walks in solitude creates a rhythm by which a person can think, and pray, and dream. Walking also slows down so that we can pay attention to the beauty in even the most common scenes around us.

Many pilgrims have sought God while walking. Some paths, such as the famous Camino de Santiago, is a pilgrimage that people have taken for over a thousand years. Some churches have built labyrinths, circular paths designed to help people practice contemplation. Some Christians walk the Stations of the Cross to meditate on Christ’s sufferings. My wife is part of a walking Bible study where the group discusses the scriptures while strolling together.

Walking is one of the simplest, most healthful practices we can do to keep our minds clear, refresh our bodies, and lift our spirits. When we walk with others, we enhance our relationships. And walking can help us cultivate a conversational relationship with God through meditating on his words and speaking to him in prayer.

Today, in Ephesians 5, verses 15-21, Paul encourages to pursue three ways of walking in Christ.

First, walking in Christ involves pursuing wisdom. “Be careful then how you live [walk], not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Paul urges us here to walk carefully, to walk wisely, to walk in such a way that we make good use of the time we have and not waste it.

Why is it important to walk with Christ in wisdom? Because, the Apostle says, the days are evil. Now, remember, he wrote those words about 2000 years ago. The fact is, life in this world has never been easy. It has always been filled with complicated questions, temptations that are hard to avoid, and obstacles that will always try and prevent us from following the way of Christ. It always will be.

So, we need wisdom. We need to understand what the will of the Lord is, as Paul says. When I was in church youth group as a teenager, our youth leader had us memorize passages from Proverbs, one of the Bible books that teaches wisdom. He had me begin with Proverbs 2:

“My son, if thou wilt receive my words and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”

Our youth leader knew what we needed most. As young people in Christ, he tried to create in us a hunger for wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. We needed to grow up, to pursue a more mature perspective on what it takes to walk in God’s peace and serve the Lord. And the process hasn’t stopped. I find I need to keep seeking God’s wisdom more and more the older I get. How about you?

Second, walking in Christ involves pursuing a life of worship. Paul writes, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let me paraphrase this — “Learn to party like Christians, not like people who waste their lives getting high and seeking cheap thrills.”

Paul is not saying that Christians should never drink alcohol or have a good time, he is saying that there’s a whole population of people out there who don’t know how to find joy in much else. If we’re followers of Jesus however, Paul says, we have the Spirit within us and the Spirit gives us an appreciation for activities that are more profound and meaningful: being together as a church family, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, and worshiping God together.

There are lots of ways to find thrills and happy experiences in life, and I don’t think Paul is denigrating them. But he is commending a wiser approach to these things, and encouraging us to put our emphasis on things that really matter. It’s not just about going to church either. It’s about walking with Jesus, cultivating a lifestyle in which weightier things take priority and we find joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the relationships and practices which help us live well together, with joy and thankfulness.

And that leads to the third aspect of walking in Christ: Walking in Christ involves pursuing a life of serving others. Paul’s next exhortation is, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” If we are going to walk in Christ, if we are going to walk with Christ, then we will find ourselves walking in the places where he walked and relating to others as he did. And that means we are going to walk in love.

Love means that, like Jesus, I’ll want to spend time with others. Love means I will try and be a good listener. Love means I will look for ways to be helpful. Love means I won’t insist on my opinion or my own rights all the time, but will defer and learn to respect others’ perspectives, even if I disagree.

Love means I will watch for ways I can benefit others’ lives — at times that could mean performing some action to help them, at other times it might mean leaving them alone, or sometimes it may mean letting them help or serve me in some way. Love also means recognizing that we are going to fail each other often and that we will need to practice patience, forbearance, and forgiveness regularly. Being subject to one another means that my faith in Christ will work itself out in a life of love and service to others, in these and other ways.

What does it mean to walk in Christ? According to the Apostle Paul, it means pursuing a life of wisdom, pursuing a life of worship, and pursuing a life of loving service to others. Christ has raised us from sin and death to walk in this kind of new life.

The practice of walking is healthy for our bodies and minds. But walking with Christ as Paul encourages us here is not only healthy for ourselves and our own spiritual formation, but it also, through us, can help restore God’s life and shalom to the world around us.

May the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.

CM – another look: midwinter

On a Winter’s Day. Photo by Carol McCray at Flickr

midwinter

in long and deep midwinter
dreams of spring arise
of fulsome brooks and fragile buds
of warmer winds and skies
that, moaning, pour the anguished tears
of childbirth on the land
and ‘midst the muddy, messy muck
transform the slender strands
weaving a carpet ‘neath the trees
which don their own green gowns
and fill the space below the blue
like dancers all around
who hear the call of lively song
— they bend, they reach, they sway —
and welcome all the newborn life
now coming out to play.

a wish-dream only!
cold and lonely
here i pass the day.

in frozen climes
i’ll wrangle rhymes
‘til winter pass away.

CM: each time love comes

Abraham welcoming the three angels. Boruch Nachson

oak shade, midday
three men appear at our tent
something striking
i wonder about their intent

rising, moving
i run to greet them and bow
please don’t pass by
stay and refresh yourselves now

serve them, watch them
what is it in them i see?
all so curious
something portentous for me?

shocking words come
my eyes grow wide at the news
somewhere laughter
utterly stunned and bemused

each time love comes
calling my soul to receive
gifts from strangers
i find it hard to believe

head shake, snicker
i dismiss right from the start
love’s potential
to find a place in my heart

hiding, doubting
i dash my hopes to the ground
all too wonderful
can true laughter be found?

CM: all is good and blest (a creation primer)

one, two,
three, four,
five, six
— rest
earth and sky
simple as pie
all is good and blest

day, night
waters, sky
land, sea
— space
chaos tamed
formed and framed
for everything a place

sun, moon
fish, birds,
animals, people
— there:
a temple shaped
and formed and filled
with priests to give it care

seventh day
a day to stop
and savor what god’s made
receive, embrace
all gifts of grace
in this good world displayed

one, two,
three, four,
five, six
— rest
earth and sky
simple as pie
all is good and blest