Remembering a Mockingbird

Mockingbird meme

Harper Lee never enjoyed being in the spotlight. It’s not because she shied away from telling a powerful story, but because it’s hard to be the focus of the spotlight while focusing the light itself. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is more than the greatest American Novel; it is an unassuming vessel in which the Gospel walks around in our own skin. It’s one thing to hear the parable of the good Samaritan from the pulpit or bible study, and know that we should be a neighbor to all, but inviting my Deep South neighbor into a familiar Maycomb courtroom so that our holy imaginations can expand beyond our cultural assumptions, changes the very images we see when we close our eyes and think of the “other.”

thanks

Lee taught us how to tell our own story through Scout’s adventures, to meet violence with a lamp, rocking chair, and a newspaper, to question our assumptions that we just know are true, and to never fear reaching out to the graceful and mysterious Boo Radleys of the world. A book is a funny thing. The words on the page are bound together with spine and covers, but the idea within it is as timeless and unbound as Lee herself is as she now rests in the heart of God. Lee suggested that a mockingbird simply sings a song for all to enjoy, but the song she sang continues to disrupt our neat Maycomb lines in which we want everything to fit and know its place. Harper Lee will be missed, but her story will continue to focus an incarnational light shining toward justice.

The Faith of a Mockingbird

The Faith of a Mockingbird by Matt Rawle

This Isn’t About Money . . . sort of

talent

Jesus tells the disciples a story about a man who will be going away on a journey near the end of his ministry (Matthew 25:14-30). This man shares his wealth with his servants before departing, offering them no explanation as to what they are supposed to do with this entrusted property. The amount of wealth he entrusts to his servants is a huge sum. To the first he offers five talents, to the second, two, and to the third, one. A talent is just short of an annual salary for a day laborer, so this amount entrusted to the servants is more money than they’ve ever possessed at one time.

The first and the second servants invest their master’s property, and the sum doubles with each. The third returns the master’s investment neither gaining or losing any value saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” This third servant is called “lazy,” and “wicked,” and he is thrown out in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yikes!

This parable is about money, but then again it isn’t. Sharing our wealth is an important spiritual discipline. In the early church the disciples shared all of their possessions with each other (going well above the typical tithe!) so that all might be filled (Acts 2:45). We also share our wealth as a statement of faith, trusting that God will produce a kingdom from our earthly gifts in much the same way that simple bread is transformed into the body of Christ during Holy Communion. In other words, if we alone control our wealth, we will only produce what the earth will allow; however if we offer our gifts to God, transformation of the earth is the fruit the Kingdom will yield.

But the parable isn’t so much about money as it is about God’s abundance and how much God shares with us. We each have been given talents to share in the body of Christ. A friend of mine adopted this parable as a means of church growth. Everyone who comes to his church is asked three questions: 1. What do you to do well enough that you could teach someone else to do it? 2. What do you want to learn? 3. Other than God, who is walking with you on your journey? In other words, what talent has God offered to you, and how can you invest that talent within the community? What would you like to learn from other talented people? With whom do you chose to walk on this one wild adventure we call life?

Your 2016 Story

happy new yearThe Christmas season is in full swing (It’s twelve days, after all…) though it seems that the world has moved on. I saw King Cakes in Walmart yesterday, but eating a slice of its gooey, frosted goodness is just a sin before January 6th. Beginning this Sunday my congregation will begin a new worship series called, “The Way,” which explores the commitment we make when joining a faith community. When a new member comes forward I ask them the traditional United Methodist question: “Will you support The Well with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.”

As you reflect on 2015 coming to a close, I wonder how you spent your prayer time last year? For what or whom did you most often pray? Were you in need of healing or maybe a change of venue? Did you pray for a friend? An enemy? Did you sit in silence just spending time with God?

Where was your presence most deeply felt in 2015? If the walls of your home could talk, what would they say? Did you volunteer at the church or at Helping Hands or with a civic group? Maybe it’s your office that saw you most often. Maybe that book you got last year is still sitting on the shelf waiting for you to dream that next adventure from the pages to your imagination?

How did you share your gifts in 2015? Did you discover a new talent, and you’re just waiting for the right audience? If you take a peek at your checkbook would you find it to be an adequate reflection of your values? Was this last year really difficult for meeting your family’s needs? Maybe your wealth only went to insurance or the doctor’s office? Are you celebrating because you are finally out of debt!?

How did you serve your neighbor last year? Were you at a friend’s side when they were recovering? Did you go ahead and mow the neighbor’s lawn? Maybe you were helping the pastor fix a leaky roof at The Wesley, or maybe you are repairing the lock on the door while the pastor is quickly writing this article (you know you are, you beautiful people, you!)? Is your body sore from helping load the moving van for a friend who you hope to see again one day? Did you serve with the poor rather than for the poor?

What story did you tell in 2015? We are always telling a story through our thoughts, words, and actions. Were your words in line with the grace God offers? Maybe all of your prayers ended with a question mark? Would you be embarrassed to repost your Facebook posts from a year ago? Maybe your words were full of peace and well wishes. Was your story simply and invitation to hear someone else’s?

Well, 2015 will soon be in the record books. How will you support God’s kingdom through your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness in 2016?

The Christmas Trinity

trinity chrismonThe nativity story is a play in three acts revealing to us God’s essence. In the first act Luke sets the story squarely in a real place and time. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke starts at the top with Caesar because in those days the world was his. “This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” He then moves down the chain of command to Quirinius, someone of less significance, but someone with enough authority to govern the land. Augustus and Quirinius get things done. Everyone is going to his or her homeland to register with occupying Rome so that they might pay the appropriate tax, have their whereabouts recorded with the authorities, and just to remind them who is in charge. Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because Joseph is from the house of David. Little does Caesar know that in executing his earthy authority, prophecy about the Messiah is coming true.

 

Mary and Joseph find no room in the inn, so Mary gives birth to Jesus outdoors among the animals. It’s almost as if we are hearing a new creation story. In the beginning when the earth was a void, God’s spirit hovered over the waters, and now through the waters of the womb, a child conceived by that same Spirit inhales the Spirit for his first life-giving breath. God first created light and now this light is alive, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity,” as Charles Wesley reminds us in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” This first act is about the Incarnation, the second part of the Trinity, how God put on flesh to dwell among us so that we might see God.

 

Then the scene changes. Interestingly, Jesus’ birth is not announced in the palace. Luke continues descending the economic ladder so that the audience is swept away into the fields with shepherds. On the one hand this is terrible storytelling. You’ve already introduced Caesar and his authority. It makes perfect sense to take the audience back to where the play started, and announce to Caesar the birth of God’s own Son. But this is not penned to make sense; rather the Gospel is remembered in order to turn the world upside down. An angel appears before shepherds in the field, the third shift workers, those with little political value and even less economic strength. The angel announces, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” In other words, in those days this was Caesar’s world, but on this day, God is turning everything upside down for all of the right reasons. Then a host of angels praise God saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” Here is a child born in the lowliest place on earth, literally 856 feet below sea level, and yet the angels tell about God’s glory reaching up to the heavens. In other words, Christ assumes all of creation. Christ fulfills Psalm 139 when the Psalmist says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in the depths you are there.” This second act is about how God, our creator, the first person of the Trinity, is beginning to recreate and redeem creation itself.

 

The scene changes again. The shepherds run with haste to see the child wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. When they arrive they tell Mary and Joseph everything the angels said, all who heard it were amazed, and Mary treasured and pondered their words in her heart. In other words, they began to tell the story. They began to share their experience. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, which rested among the disciples on the day of Pentecost, is already moving among humanity to share the great joy and profound love of God. This is more than a birthday story. This is more than a midnight hustling to get last minute stocking stuffers. This is more than mistletoe and eggnog and semester breaks and red cups This is the day when the fullness of God was pleased to dwell upon the earth, when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life, the Idea, the Word, and the Inspiration of God covered all of creation so that we might know love, so that we might trust in hope, so that we might have the faith to move the mountains and palaces of the world, so that we might know how to live and how to die, so that we might live again with God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Lights Please…

Izzie Christmas Story

The girls are home from school this week as we get ready for the Christmas holiday. As I started to write my Christmas Eve sermon I invited the girls to help me. I read them the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel, and I invited them to ask me questions about the story or to tell me what images from the story they could see in their imagination. It wasn’t long before they started asking questions. Annaleigh interrupted asking, “Why did you say ‘David?’ I thought this story was about Jesus?” Well, Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was where King David was born (1 Samuel 16:4). The Hebrew scriptures tells us that it was from Bethlehem that God would raise up a savior (Micah 5:2).

I kept reading, and when I arrived at the angel’s pronouncement to the shepherds, the girls joined in almost word for word. I asked them how they new what the angels say to the shepherds. Isabelle admitted she had been trying to memorize the audio from our Linus ornament on the Christmas tree. “Lights, please…That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Sometimes I forget that children are always listening, always watching what we grown-ups do. I was both thankful that they had committed scripture to their memory, but a bit troubled with their ability to memorize what they see and experience.

Christmas is a hurried time, and frankly over the last few days I was not setting the best example. Of course there’s the stress in making sure the Christmas lists had been filled, the cookies baked, the house cleaned, and end of the year business all tidied up with a bow. Maybe their hyperactivity is just a reflection of my own restlessness? Thankfully, there’s good old Linus to offer them a moment of beautiful respite.

So, there’s still hope. Maybe the gifts, cookies, and business are not nearly as important as sitting around the tree in thanksgiving, actually spending some holy time around the quickly-hung ornaments. A quick survey of our tree revealed Linus on stage, Tiny Tim on Scrooge’s shoulder, kindergarten school projects on red construction paper, a blue glass TARDIS (surprised?), an Italian leg lamp (I know it’s Italian because it said “Fragile” on the box), an ornament remembering our wedding anniversary, an angel topper from generations ago, and many more. Our tree tells a beautiful story, and it is a story I can do a better job telling.

What is your Christmas story? Is it remembered through ornaments on a tree? Is it shared through reading scripture with your friends and family? Do you tell your story through service and generosity? Linus’ “Lights please…” is such a simple and beautiful reminder of God’s light in the person of Jesus in a dark world. If you could call for the spotlight, what story would you tell?

A Clever Genocide

candle-cross1

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Matthew 2:13

‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ Matthew 13:24-30

 

The problem with violence is not that it is senseless—it’s that it makes too much sense for far too many. After a group of Daesh[1] (ISIS or ISIL) terrorists murdered 129 people in Paris (not to overshadow the indiscriminant violence happening in every village and hamlet) the world quickly changed it’s profile picture to a vertical translucent red, white, and blue. Not long after many stood in solidarity with France, news broke that one of the murders was carrying a Syrian passport. Hastily, Governors across America petitioned President Obama to close the American border to Syrian refugees, locking out those trying to escape extremism out of fear that a Friday night in Paris might become the next tragedy in America.

 

Is the fear warranted? Probably. American leaders should be cautious in order to ensure the safety of the people within their charge. Should caution supersede compassion? Probably not. At least, let’s take a moment to think. It’s a fair assumption that extremists are aware of the thousands who have left their home behind. It’s also a fair assumption that the Daesh knew the Paris attack would put world leaders on high alert. Closing borders to those fleeing Syria is a clever way to ensure that those whom you were oppressing are left to be oppressed by someone else’s hand. It’s an eerie reminder of the 20,000 Jews who were turned away at the Swiss border between 1939-1941.[2] Knowing that refugees are in transit, and knowing the power of fear, the attack in Paris is a clever genocide against those fleeing from your power.

 

Let us lament the loss of innocence. Let us pray for wisdom and compassion. Let us be quick to listen and slow to speak. “Should we cut down the weeds?” the workers asked in Jesus’ parable. “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Could it be that closing borders is precisely what the enemy who sows weeds among the wheat is hoping will happen? Could it be that their hope is in fear’s motivation to accomplish what they could not? You know . . . a closed border is closed both ways. Lord have mercy….

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’  Matthew 2:13-15
Notes:

I need to give a shout out to Lori Jones, the best editor on the planet, for helping me get the words from my brain to the screen.  Now for the footnotes…

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-vs-islamic-state-vs-isil-vs-daesh-what-do-the-different-names-mean-9750629.html.

[2] http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005470

Dr. What’s-Your-Problem, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Coffee

coffe cup redThis Starbucks red cup thing needs no more press (yeah, so here’s a blog post about it . . . smooth). Some are upset that Starbucks’ holiday disposable cup doesn’t saying anything about Christmas.  I would hope that Christians are too busy with doing the things Jesus said to do as he read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4) to worry about cardboard graphics, but with that said, here are my top five things to think about.

1. Use a refillable mug, and fill it with decaf. It seems some folks don’t need any more caffeine.

2. Economy and Evangelism have a tense marriage. We should host a potluck, and have them sit down for a good conversation. It seems like one is trying to tell the other how to live rather than listen to what it is about.

3. Jesus actually celebrated Hanukkah. Boycotting an establishment because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is just stupid. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, just say “Thank you.” Don’t be a jerk. For those keeping score, using “Holidays” is more correct anyway.

4.There is no war on Christmas . . . however, there is one is Syria.

5. Jesus’ birth is the eye of a storm that continues to turn the world upside down. God emptied the divine self so that we might discover and share abundant and everlasting life. Jesus was born in the lowest place on earth and the angles sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” meaning that God has reconciled everything. So fill your cup with good things (red, blue, rainbow . . . I don’t care) and share goodness sacrificially with the world.

6. Oh . . . and Thanksgiving comes first. Then Advent.

Adele’s Prophetic “Hello.”

VIntage door lock

I’m always searching for what Jesus is trying to say to me. Sometimes I hear the Lord speaking during my prayers or daily scripture reading. Other times I can hear the Gospel when someone tells me about his or her new life in Christ, and how the sins of someone’s past have been forgiven and reconciliation has begun. Every Tuesday I glean iTunes for new music and this morning I heard the Gospel in Adele’s newest single, “Hello.” I’m not saying that the song is sacred or Christian or is meant for Sunday morning worship, but who ever said that Christ was confined to four walls and a steeple. Not to mention that the Gospel gave birth to the Church, not the other way around.

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, here’s the chorus of Adele’s (soon to be a #1 single–it was released Tuesday and has already been played 22 million times on Spotify) new song:

Hello from the other side
I must’ve called a thousand times
To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done
But when I call you never seem to be home

Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart
But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore
(“Hello,” by Adele, 2015)

Of course we can read this as song between two lovers who have not reconciled after a separation, but I wonder how this song might guide our prayers if we hear this as silent prayers offered between the church and those outside of the church’s walls?

Hello from the other side (inside the church). Imagine that the first part of the chorus is the Church’s silent prayer. The church isn’t perfect. Over the last two thousand years the church has missed Christian perfection in significant ways. I’ve often said that the church would be perfect if it weren’t for all the people in it. The Church has always been about following Christ, but along the way we’ve known violence, coercion, oppression, and exploitation. It hurts to even type it, but this song offers helpful words. Understandably, the Church seeks the least and the lost in order to share the light of Christ, but maybe the Church’s own confession and desire for pardon has been a forgotten narrative. I think “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done,” goes too far, never mind that forgiveness is quite difficult when confession is general, ambiguous, and over-reaching to the point of meaninglessness. Nevertheless, saying hello from the other side of the church door is a humble step in a holy direction.

Hello from the outside (of the church). Imagine that this part of the song is sung from outside the walls of the church.  Adele sings, “I’m sorry for breaking your heart, but it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore.” These are damning words if spoken to the church from the outside. It should “tear us apart” when pews are empty, potluck leftovers are tossed because there weren’t enough in the fellowship hall, offering dollars are redirected from mission to maintenance, and doctrine is boiled down to standing on one side or the other of the “fill in the blank” controversy.

This weekend I have the blessing of attending a UMC South Central Jurisdictional meeting where we will discuss the forest in spite of the trees. This big picture discussion is a good and holy and needed dialogue, but I pray that the lens through which we investigate the forest while we stand on the canopy is a lens constructed with “Hello from the outside” in mind.

Adele’s song ends with a haunting minor chord. I wonder if our song might end differently?

Those Pagan Kids

HalloweenI recently read a Facebook post from someone upset that so many churches were celebrating that “Pagan” holiday, Halloween. This irritation is as perennial as church pumpkin patch fundraisers. Some suggest that churches are bowing to culture and diluting Christ’s Gospel, or that celebrating Halloween crosses an idolatrous border. It is true that Halloween isn’t found in scripture, but neither is Mother’s Day, Independence Day, or Ash Wednesday. Even though ringing someone’s doorbell dressed as The Great Pumpkin in order to get a bag full of a dentist’s worst nightmare doesn’t quite express the Gospel story, Halloween does have roots in the Christian tradition.

All Hallow’s Eve (October 31) and All Saints Day (November 1) is one day (sunset to sunset) set apart to celebrate the lives of the saints who have revealed God’s beauty. The evening is usually reserved for official saints of the church with the morning devoted to remembering all of our brothers and sisters who have died. I would agree that dressing up like a sexy nurse or a brain-hungry zombie misses the reason for the season, but in banning Halloween or pretending that it doesn’t happen or shunning the children who do knock on your door (when was the last time children rang your doorbell without selling cookie dough or wrapping paper?), we miss an opportunity re-narrate a culture begging to share in God’s story.

So keep the lights on, carve a pumpkin, wrap up snack-sized bags of popcorn, and offer hospitality to those who need it most. Here’s a thought. Why not say a prayer for every new family you meet? Why not wear your church t-shirt while handing out taffy? Why not go all out and fire up the grill to make mini-hot dogs for those who stop by? It’s better for their teeth, and it would take breaking bread with your neighbor to a new, awesome place.

Or you could keep your lights off, call them Pagans, and get angry about it on Facebook. That’s probably how Jesus would have done it.

Is Mercy Ever Wrong? Doctor Who and the Magician’s Apprentice

Doctor Who Meme 5

Sorry for the long post and the rambling, run-on sentences . . .

 

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Is there ever a situation in which showing mercy is wrong? This was the parting question during the Doctor Who season 9 opener last week. In lieu of giving away spoilers, the Doctor is forced into an ethical dilemma. Should he save one of his greatest enemies, or should he stand idly by allowing his enemy’s demise? Think of it this way. Imagine that you could go back in time to meet a young Hitler who is being held at gunpoint in his German grade school. What would you say? What would you do? If you intervene you may save his life, which might lead to the history we know. Would you abstain, and let what happens, happen? Maybe you would pick up a gun and take the story into your own hands.

 

Let’s check some of our assumptions. Let’s assume that showing mercy is wrong in this situation, and that the Doctor should leave his enemy stranded and certainly doomed. In full disclosure, I’m still thinking all of this through, so forgive me for the short bullet points. If we assume mercy to be ethically wrong, we assume the following:

 

  1. 1. Violence solves the problem.  “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel. Violence does not offer closure, nor does it offer healing; rather violence breeds violence. As long as there is vengeance, anger, and retribution, violence will only perpetuate it’s own reason to exist.

 

  1. 2. We are silos. Killing a potential leader does nothing to end the system that gave birth to the evil the leader perpetuates. Systems search for the path of least resistance. If a system is bent toward the lust for power or greed or might, cutting off the head just leaves room for a new dictator to take her or his place.

 

  1. 3. Evil is more powerful than good. If you must use evil means to reach a good end, you’ve proven that good is not as powerful as evil. This is precisely what the Doctor’s nemesis is hoping to reveal.

 

  1. 4. Quantity matters. If you sacrifice few for the sake of many, ethics boils down to simple arithmetic. I appreciate what the Doctor says during season 8—“Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still choose,” but I wonder if sometimes we feel forced into the decisions we make because of quantity. Certainly there is more to the Gospel than minimizing collateral damage?

 

  1. 5. Showing mercy to whom? If we are ever in the situation of offering harm to one for the safety of another, how do we choose to whom we show mercy? It may be easy to say that we should favor the defenseless or the young or the innocent against the powerful or criminal or guilty, but I know myself well enough to know that my judgment of innocence or guilt is rarely (if every) objective. I’m also aware that this is all a head game until someone attacks one of my daughters. I can’t promise to mull my theory-based ethical decision in that moment. I pray I never have to make that decision, and I pray for those who face this kind of violence more than our sensibilities might want to admit.

 

In Hosea, the Lord says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). I really wished the Lord said, “I require mercy,” or “I demand mercy,” but “desire” seems too ambiguous for life or death decisions. This text makes great sense in the context of a sacrificial Temple cult, meaning that God desires our merciful actions rather than making personal sacrifice at the Temple, but how does this apply outside of the Temple or does it? Usually, “desire” means to be in want of something, and I desire that we all are in want of more mercy in the world, but what is showing mercy means the sacrifice of the innocent?

 

Interestingly, the second definition of “desire” means “to move.” I wonder if a more appropriate reading of what God is saying through Hosea is, “I move toward mercy, not sacrifice.” It seems that when we show mercy, we move toward where God is calling us to be. It’s not that our decisions are perfect, and we may mistakenly choose the lesser of two evils, but maybe the point is always to offer mercy, forgiveness, and grace, because in so doing we move toward the very heart of God.   If we believe in redemption, and that our story ends with the life Christ merited through death and resurrection, then mercy is always the correct answer. Living in charity and grace certainly gets in the way of our notion of power, success, and security, but if Hosea is to be believed, mercy is always a movement toward God, and isn’t this the very reason we have air in our lungs?