Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross

Jesus, keep me near the cross
the one on the wall in my church
or in my study
but not the one planted in the ghetto
where crime is rampant
and poverty is the rule

Keep me near the cross
where the shiny people are
people like me
people my color
people who make about as much as I do
or maybe a little more

Jesus, keep me near the cross
the shiny gold one
superimposed on my country’s flag
that tells me you’re on our side
and that we’re never wrong

Keep me near your cross
where there aren’t any thieves
hanging about nearby
where there’s no guilt or shame
or suffering or pain
or anything that requires my attention
my sympathy
my empathy
my generosity
myself

Jesus, keep me near the cross
that’s just there once a week
and not every day
every hour
every minute
every second
that’s just too much to ask
from the One who gave it all

Believing in Church

I’m not sure that I do, anymore.

Oh, I still believe in God and His Son Jesus and their Holy Spirit.

And I believe that our Savior died and lived again and sent His Spirit to establish a church — a gathering of people dedicated to living a life that echoes His, does good in the world, ministers to others, lives in constant prayer and worship and service to Him and the Father through Him and by the power of that Spirit.

What I’m uncertain that I believe in is the church as it is.

Riddled with division.

Torn by power struggles.

Wounded by selfishness.

Weakened by faithlessness.

Prostituted to worldly enterprises and politics.

Unprincipled, powerless, poor, sick and dying.

And totally unable to see itself in this condition.

How can a church repent when she cannot see herself in need? How can she return to the husband of her youth when she cannot leave behind her paramours in business and government? How can she be one bride when her personality has been shattered across denominations and conferences and names and opinions and creeds and committees and factions and races?

So many times she lives in grandiose luxury cathedrals in the middle of neighborhoods plagued by poverty and squalor — and does nothing.

Would her Champion do nothing?

Too often her spokespersons preach gospels of wealth and acquisition and greed through code words like “blessing” and “favor” and “grace.”

Would her King show such favoritism?

Constantly the cries of her scattered consciousness of “I am the one true church” fall on deaf ears and her (frequently) self-serving “good” works are unseen by eyes turned away by her hypocrisy.

Would her Lord be so duplicitous?

Yet she squanders her resources to grow and “reach the lost” with bigger and better and more; with programs and ministries and Sunday shows; with worship bands and laser lighting and smoke machines and big-screen visuals; with campaigns and revivals and marches and protests.

Is that how her Christ won the hearts of people seeking a better life?

Only Matthew’s gospel quotes Him as mentioning the church, and only three times. And all three times, it’s in the context of how faith affects action.

Do the spokespersons for His bride teach this anymore?

Because that’s pretty much all He taught. How He lived. How He died. How He lived again.

He believed He could live a life that served others and therefore pleased His Father, and death could not stop Him.

He believed that the faith of Peter would survive His death, and death could not stop the church that would be founded on such faith. (Matthew 16:18)

He believed that faith acting in love was the way that people in His church could successfully deal with problems among themselves. (Matthew 18:15)

He believed that even if that initially failed, that those whose intransigence separated them from that church could still be drawn back to it by love and faith. (Matthew 18:17)

What you believe affects the way you act toward others.

In spite of our fallibility and failure and selfishness, it is possible to live that kind of life and be a part of that community of faith and love.

He is actually not quoted as saying anything about meeting together or when or how often or what is required when that happens or who is allowed to lead or read or speak. I think He assumed it would happen as people drawn together by love and faith.

So He made a dying request, as He asked His closest friends to remember Him at the table of His bread and wine: Be one. Even as He and the Father are One. Love each other to the point you would lay down your lives for each other.

Then He went to the cross and laid down His life for them, for us, for all. He went to the tomb and laid to rest His mortality and all the wrongs and injustices that could ever be done. He went to His Father’s side to prepare a place for those who wanted to live in love forever.

And He must look at us and wonder how His shattered, scattered, schizoid bride could live with herself together in one place.

Surely He still weeps.

That’s what I’m having trouble believing in. What it’s difficult for me to remain a part of.

Because I see friends and others largely living the kind of life that loves and serves others, though they have either no real knowledge of Him, or judge Him by His bride, or simply feel they have no need for ritual or creed or the kind of exclusion they have felt because they are not part of the fellowship.

Does the One who died to save all draw the line that excludes them?

Does He not know how they’ve been treated; seen how His bride has treated others — judging and belittling and mocking and rejecting them, all the while proclaiming their “love” for them?

I can’t help but think that’s not the kind of life He bought for her with His very own.

I haven’t really been to church in a while. I miss it. I miss the fellowship, the breaking of bread, the instruction, the prayers. I miss the songs that should flow from all grateful hearts. I know I’m not perfect; that none of us is perfect; that we could all be better.

But I just feel there’s got to be something more. More than one holy day per week. More than one hour of worship while gathered. More than one voice teaching or preaching or praying or reading. More than opinions that divide rather than love and grace and humility and faith which unites.

I still, perhaps foolishly, believe that the church can be one.

She can find her path, her love, her mission for others; herself.

But that journey is long, and difficult.

And I’m not at all sure that’s the direction she’s going.

Holy Saturday

Jesus.

Your final words from that cross are still ringing in our ears.

We followed you for years, and it all ends like this?

Where are you?

Are you gone?

Can the One you called Father no longer hear our cries or feel our anguish or siphon our tears into His bottles of grief?

Where is He?

Why is the face of the Divine hidden from the mortal?

Why have we been forsaken?

We are scattered like sheep.

We are undone.

We are lost.

We speak to You, but there is no answer.

We cry out, but there is no comfort.

Our bones are dried up from weeping.

Our hearts are liquefied from fear.

Can You return to us from the grave, as You brought others back to life?

Can the dead who raised the dead raise Himself from the dead?

Are You really the Son of God?

Or did we waste our time, only to waste away now — slinking back together in secret, in terror for our lives; in dread of escaping the threat that took You and returning to empty lives?

Where have You gone that we can’t follow?

What mansion can be built inside a tomb by the dead?

We try to believe.

But we can’t even believe You’re gone.

Please.

If somehow You still live …

Outside of our hearts

Beyond our memories

Out of the reach of all pain

In a place that’s real …

Please.

Don’t leave us.

2020

The year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year I stepped back from the best job in the world — conducting the passenger train at the ES&NA — two weeks before the governor issued a mask mandate that would have made it safer.

The year I preached mostly from Facebook Live. And I’m still not a preacher; I’m a teacher and scripture reader and that has to be enough.

The year I gave dating one last shot before retiring from it. In December of 2019, I decided to give it one more year. So of course the year I decided to give it was 2020. And of course it didn’t work out, and I didn’t get over whom I needed to get over, and I didn’t get any better at dating in the 21st Century than I was in the 20th.

No surprise, really.

The year I stayed home and did nothing. Though I did finish writing my weird trilogy of novels. That will probably never be published, and that’s okay; at least I finished them.

The year I didn’t overdecorate at Christmas. The year I didn’t decorate the cottage at Christmas, at all, really. I put up wreaths. And a 24” tree.

The year that was so depressing that it would have been no surprise if Donald Trump had won re-election. And it was really no surprise that he fought the results and refused to concede and did as much damage as he could in the waning days of his presidency.

The year that more than 325,000 Americans died from a virus that too many people were too stupid or stubborn or selfish to take steps to help prevent or protect themselves from.

The year that absolutely everyone could agree on needed to be over as soon as possible, but it had to hang in there for its full 366 days because it just had to be a leap year too.

The year we all want to forget, but shouldn’t, because otherwise we’ll never learn from it.

Candor Ahead

After all, if I can’t be candid with you folks after almost 14 years, I can’t be candid with anyone.

I don’t write much anymore.

This is tough for a writer to admit.

I know it’s a kind of writer’s block, and last night I figured out/admitted which one it is.

Fear.

Not fear of failure, but of unintended success. I’m afraid that once I start, it will all come tumbling out, burbling in words of anger and frustration and sorrow at the way the world is and shouldn’t be. I’m afraid I will successfully communicate the way I feel using the words I normally wouldn’t use and I will cause wounds and rifts and pains that would at least be minimized if I keep holding them in. I’m afraid the words will take on the power of incantations that alienate and destroy.

No, you’re right; keeping them in is probably not healthy. And I do share them in prayer, very candidly, but I don’t get a lot of response these days.

So I keep on not writing.

And that is probably not healthy either.

I fumbled along in a writing job graciously offered for several years, earning part of my keep by maintaining a web site as well, but pretty much incapable of writing to meet the needs of my employer and audiences. I will always be grateful for that opportunity, and saddened that I wasn’t able to live up to the challenge.

Sure, there are thousands of texts out there that say “You were able! You are now! Just try! Just do it! Be a Nike sneaker!” and people like me buy them thinking that somehow they will be the needed kickstart and magically boot the chockblock from in front of the wheels. But they don’t.

The old magic isn’t there, because unleashing it would level Hogwarts.

So it’s best to chain it in the dungeon with the three-headed dogs and gigantic spiders and monstrous serpents and just say it isn’t there.

At least for now.

Until the spell can be found to keep it disciplined and under control.

State of the Union

Tonight, President Donald J. Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address.

He will tell everyone how great everything is in America, and how it has all happened because he is so great.

And all of his voter-fanboys will agree with him.

He will not say that the United States is perhaps more divided than it has been since the Civil War because of policies that support white supremacy, misogyny, funneling more wealth to the wealthy, religious bigotry, fear and paranoia.

He will not say that the United States is failing to respond to the threat of election encroachment by foreign powers.

He will not say that the United States cannot be protected by a wall or a military force with billions more to spend or by temporary immigrant ban after ban because the greatest threat to her is from within her — a citizenry with no self-control and total self-interest, virtually no moral compass, frustrated by the ongoing economic oppression of oligarchs and armed to the teeth.

He will not say that the United States’ hopes lie with freedom of information, a free press, a population united by concern for each other through charity and volunteerism and genuine faith … in each other; in our Constitution; in a real and actual God rather than just the invocation of a name.

He will not say that the United States becomes a stronger nation by maintaining good relationships with other nations and caring deeply about the issues which concern them as well, even if sometimes that means we do not monetarily profit by caring.

He will not say that moral purity and grace and kindness and humility and forgiveness are all key components of citizenship and a nation’s character.

He will not say these things because he does not believe them.

And a significant percentage of the country agrees with him.

Some even believe that God agrees with him.

And that is the state of our disunion.

Democrats: Here’s How To Win

You go ahead and do what you want to. But if you want to win the single-issue voters you’re losing over the issue of abortion, consider this.

Yes, I know this one only has 48 stars. Watch the Red Skelton video.Stop positioning yourselves as “pro-choice.” Stop supporting taxpayer-funded abortion centers, which is a violation of first-amendment rights of those who see abortion as murder for religious reasons. Stop playing into your opponents’ hands as they paint you to be baby-killers.

Start positioning yourselves as “helping make it easier for women to make better choices.”

Tell your story.

Tell voters you support a living wage, making it possible to have and rear children without having to have several part-time jobs.

Tell voters you support child-care, pregnancy leave and sick leave benefits, making it easier to have a child and return to work.

Tell voters you want to make good health-care affordable for all – including birth-control coverage for women – so that the cost of safely having a child or not having a child is not prohibitive for anyone, ever.

Tell voters that you support a culture in which all people are respected, and especially women – who classically have not been – and that sexual mistreatment and assault will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies due to rape.

Tell voters that you support equal pay for equal work, making it more economically feasible for women (as well as couples/families) to have and raise children.

Tell voters that you will support adoption efforts for those who want but can’t have biological children and women who choose to have their children but give them through adoption, so that this option becomes more streamlined legally and affordable generally.

Tell voters that no law criminalizing women who have abortions or abortion providers is going to stop or even necessarily reduce the number of abortions in our country; that women choose abortion out of genuine medical need, financial difficulty, personal desperation and a myriad of reasons. And that sometimes it actually is necessary, rare though it might be. It’s going to happen.

The best response to that fact is to help make it easier for women to make better choices by providing better options.

Fact is, you were already following a lot of these recommendations when your person was in the White House. And it was working. The abortion rate was down to 14.6 per thousand women – the lowest since Roe v. Wade.

And your opponents, the Republicans – though they run and win on the issue decade after decade – have not passed one law effective at reducing abortion in as many opportunities as they have had. The last thing they did – the Hyde Amendment, in 1976 – was good law, prohibiting federal funding of abortion. But there’s no data that shows it had any effect in reducing the number of abortions in the U.S. at all.

But if you want to go ahead by falling into the trap of just automatically opposing everything your opponent stands for, you go right ahead. It’s no skin off my teeth. The only reason I bring it up is out of respect for my late wife, a devoted Democrat, whose only hesitancy at supporting your party was this singular issue.

For me, it’s enough hesitancy to prevent me from supporting your party or any party.

But you just might be able to win me over this way.

Me, and a few million others.

Original goal

Too many Restoration Movement churches want to restore things to the way they were in the 1950s.

Restoration Movement churches of the 1950s wanted to restore things to the way they were in the first century.

First Century churches wanted to restore relationships to God through Jesus Christ.

So I’m thinking, Why are we spending our time and effort on trying to reach goals that are not the original?

Straw God

I don’t want to sound like a jerk about this, but I probably will anyway, so here goes.

cosmic-christThe vast number of oh-so-clever arguments that I see and hear from atheists are, at their core, straw man arguments.

“Straw Man” is a logical fallacy used to reach the desired conclusion, in this case, that God doesn’t exist, because He doesn’t meet your requirements.

For instance, “God doesn’t exist because no all-powerful being who is truly good would create evil and suffering.”

If you’re going to argue against the existence of God logically, you have to argue against the existence of the God that believers believe in, the God of the Bible, the God who not just created everything, but redeemed it after the fall of mankind at the cost of His Son’s life.

But He didn’t create evil. Someone else came up with that, and He knew it would happen from the beginning, and He had a contingency planned for it in advance. That’s what scripture says.

Work within the mythos, if you you believe it to be mythic, but work within it as a matter of integrity.

You can have all kinds of theodicy-based problems with God — believers do too; welcome to the club — but if you’re going to argue against His existence logically and honestly, then argue against the same God that believers believe in.

If you accuse God of being evil because He allows heinous evil in the world, you’re not accusing the God of scripture. The God that believers know embodies good and yet allows evil to exist because He is good. It’s not an oxymoron: He gives His created children a real choice between good and evil because having a real choice is good for them.

We chose wrong, and hideous evil infests the world to this day because we continue to choose it — to choose self; to be our own gods in our own lives — and He allows it so that we can learn from the real consequences of our real choices to wise up and choose good instead.

The God of scripture doesn’t delight in suffering, but He does suffer along with His children when they perpetuate suffering. He became human to experience it first-hand. He loved His children enough to suffer the consequences of sin — including death itself — just as we do, even when He had not sinned at all.

But there’s the sticking point: That word “sin.” If you’re an atheist and there is no god in your life beyond yourself, there can be no “sin,” can there? Whatever you choose is right and good, because you’re in charge of your own life and you determine where the moral high ground is.

And that pretty much vanishes if you turn that job over to Someone infinitely more qualified than yourself.

So, the thing to do is create a god in your own image and discredit that god according to your moral code, which is better that Straw God’s code. And that justifies your choice.

Sorry, your logical slip is showing.

I know, because I’ve made it and worn it myself, a hundred times, even as a believer in the real, genuine God of scripture and grace and the universe.

Been there.

Done that.

It doesn’t work.

Just trust me on this. Be honest. Argue with the God of scripture, and if He still doesn’t measure up, be willing to dive in deeper and study more cogently and accept it if you get an answer that doesn’t elevate your code of morality above His.

And let me share with you what always brings me back the real, genuine God of scripture and grace and the universe:

When He was tortured to death at the hands of those He loved, He forgave, and died, and death could not hold Him because ultimately death is a consequence of self-indulgence that He could never deserve — because He created us, and loved us more than Himself even though we love ourselves more than Him.

God is ever so much more than any attempts to make Him a Wicker Man of straw.

He is God, and though we may never fully grasp what that means, He is also Jesus of Nazareth, scourged within an inch of death, pinioned to a cross, buried in a tomb, raised to guarantee that life need not end.

And that is His argument for Himself that you must discredit, if you discredit Him at all.

Sorry if it makes me a jerk to point this out.

But not very sorry.

It ain’t over

I’m not in denial about Christmas. It’s over. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I don’t have the kind of let-down, blue feeling that I have had after the holiday in some years past.

You know that feeling, don’t you? All the pressure and shopping and wrapping and cooking and decorating and then … it’s all done. You get a consolation-prize holiday in a week — New Year’s (oh, boy; resolutions, losing weight, being a better person) — but the big glass ornament has really dropped at Christmas and you feel like you’ve gone down with it … Like you’ve had a software failure causing an emotional systems crash.

cosmic-christI really think that following the study of Advent has done its work on me this season: keeping up with the velcro Advent calendar in the kitchen, reading the Revised Common Lectionary readings, focusing on hymns and carols of anticipation as well as God’s delivery on His promise.

Somehow, I still feel that sense of anticipation even though the ghost of Christmas is now past.

Jesus is coming … again. He’s conquered sin and death, and there is no sting for those who follow Him. It won’t be in an humble manger or from a dusty tomb the next time, but all will see and hear His parousia … and the close of mankind’s history … and the full inbreaking of the Kingdom in the new heavens and earth. It’s enormous! It’s cosmic! It’s humanity and divinity; temporal-meets-eternal; imperfect-being-perfected stuff!

It’s really something spectacular to look forward to!

And although the season’s giving of gifts and the feasting on plenty (and the airing of grievances and the feats of strength, for some of you!) are over now, I’m in no rush to take down the decorations or stop listening to the music or cease lighting candles when I wish.

I guess the traditional time for that will be Epiphany, January 6, and that’s as wise as the Magi as far as I’m concerned … even though I’ve had decorations up since before Thanksgiving. (I had to get the cottage ready for my new hometown’s Tour of Homes on December 3.)

Now, having missed two Sundays in a row of worship with my church family here (one due to snow/ice; one from being at my old church home in Little Rock on Christmas), I’m having that sense of anticipation also that’s captured in the phrase we usually see and hear around Easter: Sunday’s coming.

Sunday IS coming. Good-Lord-willing-and-He-don’t-come-back, there will be 52 of them in the year to come … and that, too, is something to look forward to with joy!

But the bigger anticipation — He-DO-come-back! — has awakened within me and is starting to take over as the firmware on which the operating system software of my life is running. It’s basic and necessary and vital to everything else that I think, do or say. Life 2.0 — my OS since my baptism — is getting an upgrade to 2.1, I think.

And it ain’t over till it’s over.