Baptism of the Lord & Epiphany

Epiphany is a little known Special Sunday in the Christian Church. On this day, January 6th, we celebrate the “revelation” of Jesus to world, especially as it was marked by the coming of the Wise Men to visit the Christ Child. The Sundays following Epiphany are known – no sarcasm here – as the Season after Epiphany.  Those Sundays go until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. One other special Sunday celebrated in the Season after the Epiphany is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The following is a reflection on Jesus’ Baptism based on the reading from Luke 3.

I can still feel the coolness of the water as it pours over my heads, rolls onto my shoulders, and causes me to halt my breath for just a moment. The words of Rev. Hinzman are muffled but clear, “…of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

I stand before the congregation, wet with the waters poured over me at Baptism. Some are smiling, some are joyous, and some just look bored. I catch a glimpse of God’s Kingdom: people I know, people I will never know, old, young, rich, poor, gay, straight, female, and male. When they join their voices together it is as if the heavens open up and God proclaims: “We give thanks for all that God has already given you and we welcome you in Christian love…that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

I did not know then all the paths I would travel on the road of discipleship, but I began it with words of hope echoing from the very mouth of Christ’s body, the church. The memory of those words are my source of hope from day to day.

I cannot help but be glad to read that God’s own Son had hope filled words fall upon him at his baptism as well: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

God’s voice spoken from heaven or spoken by the Body of Christ are still seeds of hope.

More Important than Christ in Christmas

At first glance, the title of this article might make some cringe. We live in a society where for decades we have heard that there is a “war” on Christmas and we need to be doing everything that we can to win this cultural war.

First, it’s a disservice to combat veterans to refer to cultural disagreements as “war.” War is an ugly, violent, and deadly thing. I’ve never fought in a war, but I have counseled those who have. I have no desire to see combat or the terror that it brings to heart, mind, and soul. So calling this a “war” is just a way of trying to stir up stronger reactions from people and help them vilify (and thus dehumanize) those who see Christmas differently than they do. When it comes to dehumanizing our brothers and sisters in this world, I have only one piece of advice – STOP. It is a clear sin to consider those created in God’s holy image as anything other than human.

Second, if we are worried that Jesus is being forced out of the Christmas season, well, in many ways, we surrendered the battle with our money and time a long, long time ago. Sure, there are many who choose to celebrate the birth of Christ without buying into all the commercialism. But how many of us expend countless hours and dollars on the decorations of trees, presents, and parties during this time of the year, all while robbing ourselves of the peace and hope Christ’s birth promises?

So, if the battle is over and we can’t really participate in any “war” to win it back, what is “more important than Christ in Christmas”?

That answer is simple. Instead of focusing on putting Christ back in Christmas in our culture, let us focus instead on putting Christ back in Christians every single day.

Happy Holidays

John 1:11 tells us: “(Jesus) came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Every time I buy into the warring attitude with our culture, I do the same thing – I don’t accept Jesus in me.

Every time I don’t align my finances so that at least a tenth of what I make goes to the local church, but spend even more than that on Christmas celebrations, then I do not accept him.

Every time I find some reason not to reach out to the stranger near me in the same way that Jesus stepped down from the throne of heaven to come and be with us, I do not accept him.

Every time I post something on social media that belittles a group that disagrees with the way I think, I do not accept him. Remember – Jesus is the one who ate with sinners, let the condemned adulterer live, and even forgave a thief dying next to him on a cross.

Yes, there is something much more important than putting Christ back in Christmas. It is putting Christ back in Christians.

When I do that, well, the other will take care of itself. Would you like to join in that kind of change?

A Methodist Requiem – A Review

RequiemI set out to read this book for two main reasons. First, the author had a major influence on me during my time in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I respected what he taught me then and looked forward to learning something new from him. Second, the subject matter of the book, the future of the People Called Methodists, especially in light of their current battles over how to deal with human sexuality is a subject that is on my mind a lot these days. The subtitle of the book, “Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church”, piqued my interest even more since I too believe that the greatest need our denomination has at this moment in time is for an infusion of Hope.

I’m a coal country guy. I have lived in several areas of the the state of West Virginia but all of them have been effected in some ways by the changing nature of the coal business. My paternal grandfather was a railroader in the Central Mountains of WV and my maternal grandfather was a low seam coal minor in Northern WV. Although the generations that followed them managed to avoid the coal/railroad business – with the exception of one uncle who worked as a railroad dispatcher – there is something about the rise and fall of this industry that speaks well to the topic Lawrence addresses in his book. Although his focus is upon the Eastern Pennsylvania coal history, I couldn’t help but think of the hollows, mountains, and now broken down tipples that dot the landscape of Southern WV where I live and minister. It is also a very helpful starting place for the topic of “uncertainty” that truly underlies the writing of A Methodist Requiem. So many towns in these coal areas are recovering from the rape and pillage of an industry that does so much good when it is around but leaves less than what they have taken. In fact, they leave a vast swath of hopelessness that is now being filled by the growing problem of addiction and depression.

I am fortunate. I live in a town that refuses to be defined by “what has been.” The people of Princeton are looking for a new day. They are not victims of some outsider stealing their natural resource nor do they wish to hang on to someone’s invented “war on coal” so that they can be a victim. They are waiting for the Pheonix to rise from the ashes and bring a new day to their home. In this way, our town, and perhaps even our little part of the Methodist connection can connect with the words of Lawrence as he describes the need for a resurgence of the rite of Requiem, where all can face death unafraid and proclaim the new hope of Resurrection. I appreciate the setting of this book in that framework.

However, the stronger parts of this book can be found in Lawrence’s description of the history and entanglement of resources that exist in a global church such as the United Methodist Church. I learned new things as I read through his sections on how different part of the connection could be effected by possible schisms. I’m almost afraid to admit that I did not know that “local church” is a rather new nomenclature for United Methodism and one that points out just how much we are willing to grab hold of cultural definitions IF those definitions fit our desired outcomes. It saddens me to know that we are looking to greatly redefine the power of connectionalism that is found in the United Methodist movement for the cultural pablum of having the freedom for local church decisions on matters. The greater freedom is probably to found in celebrating a connection that exists with so much diversity that it hurts at times to be together because then we must acknowledge the need for the Cross of Christ to bring together such diverse people. Lawrence tackles this history and entanglement much more eloquently than I can in this review.

The greatest strength of this book is the theological work that Lawrence does in the final section of the book where he ties together the story of a “wandering Aramean” and the system work of a Jewish Rabbi. I don’t want to say too much here, but I will say that I have read and studied Edwin Friedman for decades now and the treatment Dr. William Lawrence gives to the idea of self differentiation, especially within a system s connected as the United Methodist Church should be is by far the best I have read.

If you are a United Methodist preparing for the reports from the Commission on the Way Forward and our Council of Bishops…If you are a United Methodist preparing yourself for the work that will take place at the Special General Conference in 2019…If you are a United Methodist wondering why we should even be talking about issues of sexuality at all…Hell, if you are a United Methodist, READ THIS BOOK. You will not be disappointed. You will find yourself awash in hope and ready to celebrate the new day about to come to our little corner of God’s Kingdom.

Thank you again, Dr. Lawrence, for sharing your wisdom. May I say to you the very words you shared with your classes and I share with my congregation each week:

Wherever you go, may God go with you;
Whatever you need, may God provide;
Whenever you stumble, may God lift you.
And when, at the end of your days, when you lay yourself down for the last time –
May God raise you up for all time.

I expect nothing less for the people called Methodist!

Reluctant Prophet

This morning I listened to part of the story of Jonah. I know that many people are familiar with his journey away from the call God placed upon his life. That running left him on a ship ready to be ripped apart by a storm until he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish.

Many people are aware that this story tells of Jonah’s journey to the place God had called him to go via the belly of the big fish. Eventually Jonah is vomited up on the shore like spoiled seafood and he begins his real journey.

The story tells us that the place Jonah was sent was so large that it would take three days to walk across it. Jonah began his journey and began truly answering his call when he took those first steps into the city. Bleached white by the acid of the stomach of some big fish, seaweed tangled in his hair, and clouded with a stench that proceeded him by the full length of Ninevah, Jonah began to proclaim the destruction of the city. He did so with much reluctance – not because he didn’t want to give bad news to the Ninevites, but because he was afraid that they might hear him, repent, and be spared by God. So, God made certain the people God wished to spare would not miss the message by sending this mess of a prophet to their city.

The reluctance of the prophet came from his experience of the mercy of God.

I get that. Sometimes it is not my fear of being heard that keeps me from speaking. It is not my fear of being misunderstood that locks my lips. It is the fear of being perfectly understood and found standing in the very mess I created by not trusting in that goodness when I began.

The best way to travel to the home I see as God’s Kingdom is as one who is clothed in the mercy and goodness of the God I proclaim. I don’t always get that but I can count on God to dress me up in it – or dress me down with it – so that the message won’t be missed.

Even as the words of Jonah spoke to me this morning, words from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes” also tugged on my Spirit:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Yeah. That’s a whole lot easier than being bleached, tangled in seaweed and smelling like last week’s thrown out cat food. Perhaps my reluctance can be overcome by God’s mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.