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.

The election is over

And I am dealing with its aftermath the same way I have tried to deal with the buildup to it and the day of it: through prayer.

Yes, I know this one only has 48 stars. Watch the Red Skelton video.I committed many months ago to praying for the two major party candidates — neither of which I could vote for, in good conscience (nor any of the other minor party candidates). Today I decided to renew my commitment.

One is in over his head.

The other must surely be down within her heart.

Both need prayers. Do I need to quote scripture for my fellow believers to explain why? All right, then, I will:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior … — The apostle, Paul; 1 Timothy 2:1-3ff

Even if you consider them your political enemies.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. — Jesus of Nazareth; Matthew 5:43-45

The days ahead will be challenging for our nation and the world as we all adjust to a radically different political paradigm. This is not your usual party-to-party transition; this is from party-to-outsider-only-tenuously-connected-to-party. So pray for believers. Yes, believers. It is through believers that the world can come to know the Father, and they can come to know Him best by the gospel of His Son.

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” — Jesus of Nazareth; John 17:20-25

I know it seems like we should just pray for our nation and the world and leave it up to God, but that’s the lazy way — and it’s not what God had in mind. That’s why Jesus prays for believers: because God believes in them and will empower them to do the work of making him known to the world.

Yeah; I don’t know why. I don’t know why God still believes in us — as messed up as we are, and as confident in ourselves anyway, and as convinced as ever that somehow our salvation is in a particular flag or border or army or leader or party. But He does. He expressed that faith in us through His Son and we need to pray to be strong and courageous in order to be part of the solutions to the problems this world has stupidly chosen and sinned its way into.

The day after the election, I took a little flack for posting my thoughts on Facebook:

We go forward from here.

We do better.

We commit to each other that we will participate more actively in the government of our own nation and of our own character.

We do not slough off all responsibility to elected officials.

We take it and run with it.

We bind up the wounds rather than salting or reopening them.

We respect each other.

We come together.

We fight together, not against each other, but against the divisiveness within and the antagonism from without that would gleefully destroy our Republic.

We live up to our pledge — not to a single person or party or even a flag of cloth — but to each other:

“ONE nation under God, INDIVISIBLE, with liberty and justice for ALL.”

No excuses.

But I make no apology for what I believe. Some of my friends whose candidate lost were hurting, and perhaps I should have given them a little more time and space to hurt. Others were plainly gloating, and deserved a little deflation to the party ego and the divisiveness they were displaying.

I am clearly no party animal, and it will require a willingness to unite and heal this nation if we want to be able to stand on the world stage and not appear weak, divided, partisan and yet still claiming somehow to be “Christian” with all of our bitter infighting.

And we will not be able to do this by ourselves. We need God’s help. We need humility. We need penitence. We need reliance on His power to show a Christlike nature to the world and to agree on what that means and to glorify His name above our platforms and parties and plans and presidents.

We need to pray it.

We need to live it.

Home to a Place I’ve Been Before

Quite a lot has happened in my life since my last post.

I sold my house in Webster, N.C. and moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

I’ve never lived here before — well, never more than a few days at a time — but I have long wanted to.

It’s the place where Angi and I became engaged; where we brought our kids for long weekends away from Little Rock; where this little cottage that is now my home was built in 1882 by the ninth governor of Arkansas, Powell Clayton (along with several others, the Crescent Hotel and the Eureka Springs Railway). And where it has been for sale for about three years and three realtors.

But no more.

I’ve bought it and am making it my home as I unpack all my boxes.

bedroom249

Angi and I talked about retiring here. I don’t know if we would have or not, but I hope to. Not yet, of course; I’m still working via web for Western Carolina University … writing and posting news articles to the university’s news website and putting together the weekly newsletter to faculty and staff, The Reporter.

I’ve been coming to Eureka Springs for weekend and holiday retreats for about 30 years now — I can still remember my first trip, riding the steam train and walking a couple of trails on an inexpensive trail map I bought at a bookstore.

I probably missed seeing my house (panorama of it currently featured in the blog header) the first time on that trip … I think I took the stair-step trail by Crescent Spring on up to the Crescent Hotel, and bypassed it. But I saw it many, many times thereafter on the countless trolleybus rides that our family took together. Laura and Matthew, even when little, loved to ride the trolleybuses.

Now they pass in front of my house, on the average of every twenty minutes on the weekend. Except when some idiot with Four Men and Two Trucks is trying to move in on a two-festival Saturday and causes a traffic jam along with a trolleybus and a guided-tour tram.

trafficjames

Eventually, a cooler head in the silver truck behind the tram un-logjammed everything by turning left in front of me, freeing up the Two Trucks full of my possessions behind me to move forward so that the tram beside us could move, too.

But no one really lost their cool, because Eureka Springs is just that sort of place — even when it’s hot and sweltery outside, people are there to chill out. And for the most part, they do.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why it feels like home.

Next to last

I watched “What Dreams My Come” just now because I needed to.

It was especially difficult to watch this visually dazzling movie about soulmates, loss, depression, death, suicide, the afterlife and love because it stars the late and truly great Robin Williams.

But it is the next-to-last movie on my list of movies I have had to wait to watch since losing Angi three years ago.

Only “Shadowlands” remains.

Still not ready to watch that one.

I read somewhere long ago – I think when trying to lead a Single Again Class for divorced and widowed people in Abilene – an author who recommended a year of healthy grief for every five years you got to spend with the one you’ve loved and lost.

That seems about right to me.

Next year, “Shadowlands.”

A Blessing for the Journey

May the wind be at your back
But not only at your back

May the wind be ever before you
To clear the path ahead

May the wind be always at your side
At either side and both, a friend

May it support you from beneath
And keep you grounded as the earth

May it blow above that clouds may part
And show you stars above

May the wind surround you like a warm cloak
Protecting you from threats and harms

And may it inspire you from within
God’s very breath, His Spirit yours

Today, tomorrow and forever.

Amen.

Easter – and Maybe My Shortest Message Ever

My little church family and I gathered at our old parsonage in Sylva this gloomy, grey Easter morning. We prayed. We sang. We dined together at the Lord’s table and remembered Him. Then John led us in “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It was time for me to speak. I gathered myself as best I could. And I said (to the best of my recollection):

“As many of you know, it was many, many months after Angi passed away before I could sing ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ again. Many of you prayed with me for the miracle that would save her life. And God’s answer was ‘no.’

“And that’s as good a segue into my message this morning as I know. We’ll be going out-of-sequence in our study of prayer in scripture” — last Sunday we left off with the prayers of prophets — “to talk about Jesus’ last prayers and what happens when God says ‘no.'”

Then we read Matthew 26:36-46. I asked: “What happens when God doesn’t answer prayer the way we would like?”

Suzanne and Brenda suggested that perhaps it’s because He has a better plan in mind.

Then I asked: “What would have happened if God had not said ‘no’ to His Son’s prayers?”

The answers cascaded: “We wouldn’t be celebrating Good Friday or Easter” … “We wouldn’t have celebrated the Lord’s Supper this morning” … “We wouldn’t even be here.”

So I paused a moment, and tried to phrase my next question carefully. “Forgive me; I have a colossal headache this morning and I’m not at my best. Let me ask this: Could God have saved us and still said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ prayers … ‘Yes, this cup can pass from You’?”

There was general assent the He could, indeed. “He can do anything He wants to,” Suzanne volunteered.

“I can’t argue with that,” I replied, “… and I believe it’s true. But if He had, what would have happened to Isaiah 53? And so many of the other prophecies about Jesus?”

There was a moment of silence. John, sitting an empty seat away, touched me on the shoulder. “Key point,” he said.

“It is, isn’t it?” I said. “I’ve thought about this for a number of years. And I’ve had to come to the conclusion that the only acceptable reason for God to have said ‘no’ to the pleas of His own Son for His life would have to be that there was no other way. God put put Himself in this box of prophecy, knowing the impact that this final blood sacrifice would have on hearts for centuries yet to come. Two thousand years down the road, this Story still gets us … right … here.”

And I felt my fist pounding against my chest.

And I felt my composure slipping away as I spoke.

“Nothing touches us like the Story of God’s Son giving Himself up. Nothing else could do. If it had only been a story of a man dying cruelly, it would have been only one of thousands of cruel deaths. But it was God’s Son. If God’s Son had only died cruelly — evil would have been shown for what it is, all right — but it would have been no kind of Story that tells us of God’s power; that proves only God … can … give … life … back.”

By this time I was nearly undone. I needed a tissue, but I had none. So my face got wet.

The_Garden_Tomb_2008“And that is why I have to believe that when God says ‘no,’ even when it hurts; even when you lose someone dearest to you, that God does indeed have a better idea; a better plan.

“This Story tells me that I can fall on my face and pour out my heart and trust God and say, ‘Your will be done,’ and that He will make the most painful of times turn out for a best that we can’t even imagine,” I finished.

“And it will be well with our souls.”

Confession

My eyes are dry.
My faith is old.
My heart is hard.
My prayers are cold.
And I know how I ought to be:
Alive to You and dead to me.

Keith Green phrases it well.

My prayer life is not what it used to be. My spiritual life is not what it used to be.

I say the words. I mean them. I believe in the One to whom they are addressed. I believe He hears.

But I am not sure about what He does with those words after that.

I have friends who have lost their faith. I have a friend who went from missionary to atheist in a matter of months. I have another who went from preaching to doubting in a matter of months.

I have other friends who have out-wrestled Jacob AND Job to keep their faith … having lost those dearest to them, yet remaining in the ministry. Some have remarried; brought new children into their hearts and families through these marriages.

And I am not my friends.

God and I are not exactly on speaking terms.

That is, I talk to Him and He does the listening. He doesn’t seem to say much of anything back anymore.

Not like He used to.

Except – and He’s funny about this; He’s a divine comedian, in fact – except on Sunday morning.

I teach at a tiny church in the slightly bigger town next to where I live. I don’t preach, because I’m smart enough to know I’m not gifted at preaching. And there’s no need for preaching. Preaching is for people who haven’t heard the gospel. There are, on a good Sunday, ten of us at my tiny church and we’ve all long since heard the gospel. So I teach. We try to dive deep into the word. We discuss. We argue sometimes. I try to keep it loving, or failing that, civil. We midrash. I teach.

And I am the worst. As far as the teaching paradigms go, I am the worst teacher ever. It doesn’t work to set out a course of study weeks or months in advance and nibble on each Sunday’s preplanned message a little each day and slave over it in prayer and meditation and practice standing behind a lectern because I teach sitting down from a chair and because God isn’t talking to me that way anymore.

He used to. I’d study and stew and pray and read over something pestering my soul for hours and be able to sit down at the keyboard with a pretty good idea where things were going to go because I felt deep inside that it had been made clear to me, bit-by-bit and bite-by-bite and byte-by-byte.

Now He is silent.

So this blog has been pretty much silent, too.

However, on Sunday mornings, things are a little different.

My little church family has requested a study of prayer. So we are studying prayer from its first instances with Abraham and Isaac’s chief servant through the Old Testament and on to the New … exactly the way we studied the Holy Spirit for more than a year. They are gluttons for punishment. They knew I was going to do this.

On Sunday mornings now, I select four readings. They’re not from a book. They are not necessarily in scriptural order, but I try to keep them in chronological order to the best of my ability. I read them over breakfast. I seek any clarity that’s desperately needed from my books or — cautiously — online. I pray that God will help me be honest.

And once I thought He was trying to communicate to me that was all He was asking for.

Then I go to the little parsonage where we meet and I teach.  I try to tell the truth.

When I don’t know, I say, “I don’t know.”

When I have a theory, I say, “That’s just my thoughts on it.”

When I think a doctrine we’ve all heard before is out of whack, I say so and I give my reasons why and I say, “But that’s my line of  thinking on it. Yours may be different. I don’t think God is going to judge you based on what I believe, but on what you believe.”

I don’t care where the best insight of the morning comes from or who puts it into words.

I’m just there to sing, pray, worship, break bread, drink a sip from a cup, remember Jesus and live out His love for others while keeping a discussion about Him on track. (It’s always about Him. Even in the Old Testament where we are studying now. It points forward to Him. The gospels point to Him. The Acts of the Apostles  and the epistles point back at Him. The Revelation points forward to Him once again.)

And then I go home.

During the week, I pray for my friends and my family. I meet with my church family again on Wednesday evenings, and except for the remembrance at the Table, we worship and do some more midrashing.

Sometimes I poke about in the word because something is distressing my soul. Sometimes I pray about me. Sometimes I pray the rest of Keith Green’s lyrics.

What can be done
for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up
with oil and wine.
The oil is You, your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
in the wine of Your blood.

But I don’t hear the same response that I used to hear … the wording of verses from scripture that were uncomfortably poignant or illuminating or uplifting. Simply silence. Just His silence.

So I thought I’d confess that I’m a bad teacher. That I am struggling with a God who only seems to speak when He feels like it. That our relationship is strained.

Thought I’d try my hand at this blog again and see if I would know in advance how it would come out.

Nope. I didn’t.

And I sure didn’t expect that I’d be this honest.