Tag Archives: Mercy

God’s “No” & God’s “Yes”

I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.

hatMartin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament.  Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

noThe Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).

I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing.  In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….”   A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment.  It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly.  It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!”  And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”

Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.  The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society.  And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.

The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.

The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.

yesGod says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.

cookJerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”

People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –

First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception.   Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)

God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel.  It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel.  And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving.  DBS+



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“On Not Losing our Souls”

Two Christians; Two Responses


Kennan Jones was savagely beaten by a gang of passengers on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail train a few weeks ago. When Kennan asked them to stop smoking pot on the train, they turned on him.  The beating eventually spilled out onto a train platform.  It was a brutal scene, and Kennan Jones is still recovering from his injuries.  But on Thursday afternoon, August 10th, accompanied by his lawyer, Kennan Jones held a news conference to say that he hopes that what happened to him will turn into some kind of redemption for his attackers, three of whom have now been arrested.  He says that he doesn’t want to see their lives ruined over this.  When asked what he would say to those who attacked him if they were sitting across from him, Kennan Jones said, “I would probably gather a bunch of rocks in my hand, lay them out in front of me and say, ‘Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.’”   Kennan Jones says that it’s not his job to be their judge and jury. “I’ll let the courts handle that,” he said. “What I want for them is what the Lord wants for them,” Kennan Jones explained, “whatever process they have to go through to learn right from wrong.”

What a remarkable witness! And what a striking contrast to the tone of the pronouncements of the high profile Dallas Pastor who has been in the news all week.  No sooner had the President spoken of “fire” and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” than the preacher down the street from me had enthusiastically sprung to his defense and said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4.  Apart from the larger question of whether or not Romans 13 (or the United States Constitution for that matter) actually gives this, or any President, the singular authority to wage war (something that I will address in next week’s blog), there is the inner question of the spirit with which we as Christians are supposed to think and talk about the use of force in the establishment of justice.

It is important to note that Kennan Jones in his graceful response to his attackers doesn’t think that they should just go free. “He doesn’t want them to not be held accountable,” Kennan Jones’ lawyer explains, “but he doesn’t want them thrown into this mass-incarceration system.” And that’s the fine line that I think we dance on as Christians, the fine line that separates justice from mercy. I have long agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous assessment that “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is sad, and it is a duty — a moral obligation. In a sinful world justice has to be established, but I don’t think that means a rush to judgment or the enthusiastic use of force.

Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger, regret and not eagerness, the stubborn hope of redemption and not the quick pronouncement of damnation is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war in the cause of justice becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes, anguish in our hearts, and with a caution that has been deeply informed by grace.

I hear it in what Kennan Jones said at the news conference on Thursday, and it sounded like the Gospel to me. And I heard it in a Fred Craddock story that has been making the rounds this week.-

fredYears ago I received a letter from Washington asking if I would join hundreds of other ministers in holding prayer breakfasts around the world. Wherever there were American citizens or soldiers, there were going to be President’s Prayer Breakfasts. I wrote back and said I would be honored to do it. I waited a while, and then I got a letter saying that my station for the prayer breakfast would be in Seoul, Korea. I said, “Wonderful, I’ll just stop by there on the way to the office and have a prayer breakfast!” I went to Seoul, where I was the guest of General Richard Stilwell, who commanded 40,000-to-50,000 American soldiers in South Korea. The officers and troops had gathered in great numbers. Before I spoke, a private who’d been brought over from Formosa played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. It was moving and beautiful. General Stilwell said, “I love that song.”

When the breakfast was over and everybody was leaving, General Stilwell turned to me and said, “I want you to pray for us.” I said, “I will.” He said, “I don’t mean for power. We have the power. In one afternoon we could wipe out North Korea. We have the power. What we need you to pray for is that we have the restraint.” “That we have the restraint?” I asked. “Yes,” the general said, “the restraint. The mark of a civilized society is not power. It is restraint.”

In these frightening and confusing days, as Americans we cannot afford to lose our heads, and as Christians we dare not lose our souls. DBS +

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Jesus Wept…Yes, But then He raised Lazarus from the grave…


…Yes, but then He raised
Lazarus from the grave…

I am noticing something of a trend.

Whenever there is a tragic circumstance, Christians are increasingly posting on Facebook the two word response, “Jesus wept.”  And I completely believe that He does.  In fact, personally, my “Emmanuel” Christology (“God with us”) revolves around the absolute truth of this Gospel fact.  God’s full identification with us in the human condition through the incarnation is the biggest single reason why I am a Christian by conviction and not just by acculturation.

I deeply and desperately believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ (John 1:14), sharing our flesh and blood, facing all of the same threats and fears that we must face in this life (Hebrews 2:14-18), so that He can fully sympathize with us in our struggles, and give us the confidence we need to be able to draw near to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and find help in our times of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). And so, while I believe that “Jesus weeps” when we, or the world suffers, I nevertheless don’t believe that it is, all by itself, enough.  It’s only a partial Biblical truth.  It’s an insufficiently Christian response.

yiedPeter Kreeft, the very fine Roman Catholic Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, discussed this as the question of what it is that we really need when our car careens in a snowbank. He argued that while it’s wonderful to have a good friend come and sit beside us in our cold car, sharing our discomfort while we wait, that what we really need in that moment is for someone in a tow truck to come along and pull us out of the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into!  Now, if that tow truck driver is courteous and compassionate, then all the better!  But what we really need in that moment is not somebody’s sympathy, but their specific and concrete help at the point of our very real need.  And that’s why I find that the “Jesus wept” response, as valuable and as true as I honestly believe it is, is just not enough.  It’s less than the Gospel.

cryIn context, right after we’re told in John 11:35 that “Jesus wept,” we’re told that Jesus ordered the stone to be moved (11:39) so that Lazarus could get up and get out (11:43).  The whole setting of this story about Christ’s tears were His prior claim to be the resurrection and the life (11:25).  It was through His tears that Jesus Christ promised that those of us who would believe in Him, though we die yet shall we live, and that whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die (11:25-26).  This is what I think Paul had in mind when he told the Thessalonian Christians that because of their faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they could “grieve hopefully” (I Thessalonians 5:13).

To say that “Jesus wept” is to grieve, and that’s a wonderful heartfelt response to human suffering.  It’s humanizing and compassionate; a completely commendable reaction.  But to always be clear that it was through those tears that Jesus Christ confronted and then defeated death by raising Lazarus from the dead is to “up the spiritual ante” of Christianity significantly.  It is to consciously step out onto the Gospel terrain of “grieving hopefully,” and I wonder… even worry… about why it is that so many of my Christian brothers and sisters fail to go here these days in the things that they post online in response to the suffering and sadness of the world.

Paul told the Romans that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because he knew personally that it was the power of God to “save,” that is, Paul believed that the Gospel is how God in Jesus Christ heals what is broken, fixes what’s gone wrong, and answers the painful questions that confuse and crush us as human beings.  To forget to mention this as Christians in our response to the human suffering that we see and experience, it seems to me, is to flinch at the very moment when the Gospel needs to be heard most loudly and clearly.   It is to fumble the ball on the goal line.

Harvey Cox wrote about how, for the longest time, he had a bad case of “Christological heart-failure.” What he meant by this provocative term was his general reluctance to talk about Jesus Christ in settings where Jesus Christ was not well known, or among people who had not already embraced Him by faith.  But it was “those people” who finally called him out on this.  If he was really a Christian, they told him, someone who was truly trusting God in Christ with his own deep hurts and highest hopes, then why didn’t he have the courage of his convictions and tell them about it?  People who need hope, people who are looking for hope, want to know where you found your hope if you’ve got some.  By failing to talk about Jesus Christ, Harvey Cox was told by his non-Christians friends and acquaintances that he was failing to tell them the very thing that made him who he was, and that they found most interesting about him.

redSo, go ahead and let people know that Jesus Christ Himself wept when His heart was personally and powerfully touched by the anguish of the world. That’s good to know.  Just don’t stop there as if sympathy is all that there is to Christianity –  as if all we have to offer a hurting world is a God who sits beside us in the waiting rooms and at the gravesides of life, patting our hand and saying over and over, “Ain’t it awful… Ain’t it just awful.” Yes, Jesus wept, but then Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, and that’s what Lazarus really needed.  DBS +


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Open the Doors of Mercy…


That the King of Glory shall go in!

This past week Pope Francis opened the Door of Mercy at the Vatican to signal the beginning of a Jubilee Year on the church calendar.

The notion of a Jubilee Year has its roots deep in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Every seven years, by Jewish Law, there was to be a Sabbath Year. Just as God commanded one day of rest each week, the Sabbath, to remember the priority of His presence, power and provision as the key to their well-being, so God also commanded His special people to observe a Sabbath Year every seventh year.

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, say to the people of Israel, when you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:1-13)

For six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave. So also shall you do in regard to your vineyard and your olive grove. (Exodus 23:10-11)

At the end of a cycle of seven Sabbath years – the 49th year – the seventh Sabbatical year would be followed by a special “Jubilee” Year in the 50th.

And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.  For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. (Leviticus 25:8-13)

In the Nazareth synagogue early in Jesus Christ’s public ministry when He read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and announced the fulfillment of its words in their midst, many scholars believe that Jesus was announcing that the great Jubilee of God’s salvation was breaking in upon them in Him.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19/Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jubilee Year of Jewish Law became a powerful way for early Christians to think and talk about God’s saving work of redemption and release that they had experienced in Jesus Christ, and the church has ever since used this idea to call for special seasons of active grace in her life and ministry. This is what the Pope did last week, and symbolic Doors of Mercy are being opened, not just at the Vatican in Rome, but in every cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church around the world to signal the beginning of a year of special grace when people are being intentionally invited to come in.  Of course, this is supposed to be the stance of every church in every place at every time, but sometimes special gestures like this one that the Pope made last week in Rome, and that is now being repeated all around the world in churches this week, have a way of reminding all of us who are Christians that mercy is really our only currency.

The harshness of recent rhetoric in this political year needs a strong counterpoint. In fear and anger the sound of doors being slammed shut resound right now in our culture.  There are voices calling for the doors of our society to be closed to Muslims and refugees, and especially to Muslim refugees.  The anguish of our African American brothers and sisters after Ferguson bears painful witness to their experience of the doors of justice and opportunity being closed to them and locked tight for generations.  Our gay and lesbian family members and friends hear the doors of the church still slamming in their ears even as the door of equal protection under the law in the larger society has just begun to open a little bit wider.  And the mentally ill continue to be hidden away behind the closed doors of misunderstanding and isolation in both church and culture as they always have been.

yanceyPhilip Yancey in his book, What’s So Amazing about Grace, says that as a part of his research that he conducted an ongoing informal survey of the people he sat beside on airplanes and who stood with him in line with at Starbucks. “What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say the word ‘Christian’?” he wanted to know from them.  And he said that he heard words like “judgmental,” “harsh,” “angry,” “hateful,” “prejudiced” and “mean,” but never the words “graceful,” or “kind,” or “gentle,” or “loving,” not even once.  The Doors of Mercy need to be opened at church, and not just so that “they” can come in, but so that “we” might come in as well.  But even before we start to think and talk about how the church’s Doors of Mercy have to be open to all people everywhere, we need to make sure that those doors of the church have been opened to Jesus Christ.

I have long been haunted by the dream that A.J. Gordon (1836–1895), the American Baptist preacher, described at the very beginning of his spiritual autobiography – How Christ Came to Church (1895).

AJDr. A. J. Gordon was pastor of the fashionable Clarendon Street Baptist Church of Boston. A secular worldly spirit dominated the congregation. The pews were rented. They hired unsaved singers from the opera who rendered music that was spiritually dead. The deacon dared to print a leaflet which said, “Strangers Welcome.” But he was rebuked by an elder, “Why, you might get the wrong kind of people in here and run the right kind out!” Of course, everyone knew who the “right kind” were.  The pastor’s heart was deeply burdened over this situation. Pastoring became a drudgery that pressed him to the point of desperation. His people needed to repent and turn to Christ. He, therefore, spent more time on his sermons. Disappointment followed when few, if any, were converted by a week of solid toil in sermon building. Prayer meeting was dead, too. If he could only get the people together to pray. Yet in spite of all he could do, very few even attended prayer meeting. Those who did come never rose to really pour out their hearts to God for new life in the church. About that time the administration of the church began to come unglued. Opposition developed among some of the church officers. Then he had to work hard trying “to get the members to vote as they should.” Those who should have helped actually wound up hindering. That led to discouragement, sleepless nights and pressurized living. At last, he made a trip to the doctor who called for absolute rest as the only remedy for such strain and stress. While struggling to minister on such hard rocky soil, Dr. Gordon fell asleep one Saturday night while preparing his sermon. He had an unusual dream. “Not that I attach any importance to dreams or ever have done so”, he wrote. “I recognize it only as a dream; and yet I confess that the impression of it was so vivid that in spite of myself memory brings it back to me again, as though it were an actual occurrence in my personal ministry.” He dreamed he was in the pulpit just about to begin his sermon before a full congregation. At that moment a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking for someone who would give him a seat. Half way up the aisle a man offered him a place which was quietly accepted. Gordon’s eyes were riveted on this visitor. He wondered, “Who can that stranger be?” He determined to find out. After the sermon, the stranger slipped out with the crowd. The pastor asked the man with whom he sat, “Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?” In the most matter of fact way he replied, “Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.” Seeing the pastor’s great consternation, the man assured him, “Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt he will come again.” Gordon was filled with an indescribable rush of emotion and self-examination. Why the Lord Himself was here listening to the sermon today! “What was I saying?” he asked himself. “Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public?” With a sigh of relief he remembered that he was preaching Christ. “But in what spirit did I preach?” his conscience demanded. Was it in the spirit of one who knows that he himself is crucified with Christ? Or did the preacher manage to magnify himself while exalting Christ. For the first time in his life, A. J. Gordon was electrified with the truth that Christ himself had actually come to church! He could never again care what men thought of preaching, worship or church. “If I could only know that He was not displeased, that He would not withhold His feet from coming again because He had been grieved at what might have been seen or heard.” All of Pastor Gordon’s priorities were turned around. His life and ministry would never be the same after this. He fell at the feet of his Lord in worship and turned the administration of the church over to Him. He then taught his board and his people to let the Holy Spirit take charge. The revival that transformed A. J. Gordon’s ministry and changed Clarendon Street Baptist Church into a powerful lighthouse had begun! That same revival awaits any church that will let the Head of the church take charge.

Condensed from How Christ Came to Church, The Spiritual Biography of a A.J. Gordon.

In two weeks it will be Christmas – our annual celebration of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelling among us full of grace and truth. Recently, as I was listening to Handel’s Messiah as part of my regular pre-Christmas spiritual discipline, I was struck by the power of one particular chorus – “Lift up Your Heads” – #33.

“Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is the King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.” (Psalm 24:7-10).

And it made me wonder – if we haven’t opened the doors of our hearts for the King of Glory to come in, then when we open the doors of our churches to others, what is it that they will find? Because the world today so desperately needs mercy, I am glad that the Pope opened the Vatican’s Doors of Mercy.  It reminds all of us who are Christians about what it is that we have to offer.  And because the world is becoming a more frightening, anxious and harsh place with every passing day, I’m especially glad that this Pope opened the Doors of Mercy during Advent.

As you know, Advent is the season of the church year to get us ready for Christmas. This is when we are encouraged to make room once again in our hearts for the coming of Christ.  And this is when we are asked to open the doors of our churches to let Christ in all over again.  By opening the Doors of Mercy in his church this Advent, the Pope has reminded all of us who are Christians that if the world is going to find mercy when they step through the doors of our churches, then our churches are going to first have to be very intentional about opening their doors to Christ, so that the Lord of Mercy might come in.  DBS+



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Not Perfect, Just Forgiven…

peace “You have not been helpful”: Monk loses temper
dealing with United Airlines customer service
Michael Walsh ~ http://news.yahoo.com

Another airline passenger lost his cool while talking to customer service — only this time it was a monk. Brother Noah of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico says he failed to stay peaceful while dealing with United Airlines on the phone, the New York Times reported. “I said to her something like: ‘Thank you for speaking. God bless you. I will pray for you. But you have not been helpful,’” he told the broadsheet. When David Segal, author of “The Haggler” column, suggested this did not sound like much of an outburst, Brother Noah said he knows the tone of his voice “manifested anger.” So what riled up the monk?  In late November, Brother Noah’s friend at the monastery, Brother John Baptist, flew to Malawi in southeastern Africa to see his sick mother on a $2500 round-trip ticket, paid for by the monastery.  After arriving, Brother John Baptist realized he needed to extend his trip several weeks, so Brother Noah called on December 10 to reschedule the return flight. But United said the original purchase was fraudulent even though his friend already used half of the ticket.  A United representative reportedly suggested that the monastery’s leader could drive three hours away to a United desk in Albuquerque to work everything out. Then he spoke to a supervisor, identified as Mark, but the issue was not sorted out.  “Everything became our fault. There was no evidence that Brother John Baptist had been placed on a new return flight,” Brother Noah told the Times. “No record of the conversation with Mark. I really struggled to remain calm and charitable. My monastic life is about staying peaceful in all circumstances. I failed during this call.”  To set everything straight, the monastery posted an open letter on its website outlining the experience and asking for help. “Blessings to you! Christ in the Desert is having some difficulties with United Airlines. Perhaps someone reading this will know a way to help,” the letter begins.  This eventually led to a return flight, apology, and $350 credit toward future travels.

This is not the monastery in New Mexico that I go to, but it is its sister house on the other side of Santa Fe.  Benedictines, Thecirque Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a community that organizes its life around the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict.  As an Oblate of the Pecos Benedictine Monastery and Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, I have made a commitment to this Rule myself.  I try to organize my active life in the world around the spiritual principles that St. Benedict discovered in his life of following hard after Jesus Christ and then made available to others.  Ordinarily, monks and monasteries connote Christians on spiritual steroids, spiritual athletes climbing the ladder of perfection.  But in my experience, monks are just ordinary believers like ourselves who have gotten serious about their discipleship, and monasteries are places of grace, refuges where weary souls can find refreshment, reorientation and renewal.

I’ve read that there is a command on British warships known as “Still.”  When it is issued, everyone is supposed to stop where they are and what they are doing, and think about where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing!  My trips to the monastery have always been a “Still” experience for me.  They have not been victory laps with me pumping my fist in celebration of some kind of imagined spiritual maturity, but rather they have been more like time in the repair shop for my soul to find out why it’s running so rough.  And in my experience, the monastery is the perfect place to do this because they are not inhabited by angels, but by ordinary men and women who struggle with all of the same sorts of things that I do.

The Rule of St. Benedict is not a spiritual resource for the elite.  It is a spiritual resource for the ordinary containing “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”  In fact, St. Benedict described it as “a little rule for beginners.”  In the Preface to the copy of the Rule that I keep close at hand, Fr. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. explained – “Benedict was a keen observer of human nature and realized that people often fail (the abbot himself must ‘distrust his own ability”). He was concerned to help the weak, and consequently he enjoined the abbot to “so regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved….”  And so in the Rule you are repeatedly coming across little snippets of patience and grace like –

idol“…never lose hope in God’s mercy…”

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matthew 9:12)… support the wavering brother… ‘lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 2:7).”

“Imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed.  So great was his compassion for its weakness that he mercifully placed it on his shoulders and so carried it back to the flock (Luke 15:5).”

“…consideration should be given for weakness…”

The Rule of St. Benedict breathes the kind of spiritual realism that is borne of the Gospel, the kind of realism that you find in Philippians 3.  This is one of those chapters where my faith lives, especially the part that says–

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… Not that I have already attained this, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  …Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 3:8; 12-14)

Years ago the young couple who lived across the street from the church that I was serving in the Texas Panhandle put thejust familiar bumper sticker that reads “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven” on their car, only they deliberately put it on upside down!   I laughed out loud every time I saw it, and I appreciated the important spiritual truth to which it bore witness. Our standard is not perfection, but growth – growth in grace.  Weakness and failure are expected, but they’re not to be excused.  With the acknowledgment that we are not perfect, there must come the resolve to press on, and it’s in the tension of these two poles that the spiritual life gets lived out, inside and outside the monastery.  It’s good for all of us to know that monks get angry and can lose their cool too.  It means that we’re all in the same boat — the boat of grace. DBS+

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Death with Dignity; Life with Faith


29 year-old Brittany Maynard died on Saturday, November 1 by swallowing lethal drugs made available to her under an Oregon law that allows terminally ill people to choose when to die.  Diagnosed with incurable Brain Cancer at the beginning of this year, Brittany was given six months to live.  As her disease progressed she “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago” (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/281248621.html).

This is a story of human tragedy that deserves our compassion.  Apart from any conversation about the moral and spiritual legitimacy of euthanasia, the terrible circumstances that Brittany Maynard and her loved ones found themselves in and the difficult choices that they faced should leave us “humble” and “modest” – what theologian Gabriel Fackre once described as the two “least appreciated” theological virtues that we have at our disposal as people of faith.  “Humility” acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and “modesty” is how that “humility” behaves.  It doesn’t say too much, too quickly or too loudly.


We are told that Jesus wept when He finally got to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  There is a theology in the tears of Jesus Christ that deserves much more attention than they have traditionally gotten.  Reduced to a riddle – “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” – we have been distracted from the powerful point that the weeping of Jesus Christ makes about where God is and what God is doing about human suffering (see Hebrews 2:10-18; 4:14-16).   Where Christ’s title “Emmanuel” – “God with Us” (Matthew 1:23) gets most powerfully incarnated for me is at the tomb of Lazarus when He broke down and wept before the exercise of His sovereign power in bringing Lazarus back to life.  When Paul told the Thessalonians that Christians “grieve, but not as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13), I think that he was holding together both Jesus’ tears and His display of power at the grave of His friend. It’s in-between these “furious opposites” that my faith lives.


After the catastrophes that befell Job, what Marilyn McCord Adams calls “the horrors,” we are told –

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (2:11-13)

If this is where they had stopped, Job’s three friends would have been hailed as spiritual giants, pastoral role models for us all.  But they didn’t.  They opened their mouths and spoke.  They said too much, too quickly and too loudly, with the result that they muddied the waters of understanding and obstructed the channels of compassion.  I have observed a fair amount of this in the blogs and Facebook pronouncements of my ministerial peers in the weeks since Brittany Maynard took her leave of this world.


Many of my more progressive colleagues have used the death of Brittany Maynard to make their freedom of choice argument while many of my traditionally-minded colleagues have used the tragedy of her death to defend their prolife convictions.   Predictably, they have lined up on opposite sides of the field of this familiar battle to launch their volleys, and in some ways, this is exactly what Brittany Maynard wanted.   She made the conscious decision to go public with her private tragedy in order to advance the conversation about death with dignity in our society.  She chose to make her private drama a media event.  She wanted it to be the story that led the national news, and it did.  This gave her suffering a greater purpose, and I respect the courage it took for her to do this even as I admire the clarity with which she did it.  The tragic circumstances of her life provided her with a “bully pulpit” that she used quite effectively.  She strode into the public square with a statement to make.  But the nature of the public square is dialogical; other voices are going to answer back, and they have, as the blogs and Facebook postings I’ve read in recent weeks prove.  My problem with so many of those other voices has been their smug tone and their shrill arguments.  They have been so eager to score points in support of their predetermined positions that I fear that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is about real people suffering in real ways from real threats to their existence.


Of all the responses that have been made to Brittany Maynard’s circumstances and choices, the most compelling one that I have personally come across was made by another terminally ill young woman, Kara Tippett.  On both her web page – http://mundanefaithfulnrss.com – and in her recently published book The Hardest Place: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard (David C. Cook – October 2014) – Kara Tippett has staked out the exact opposite position that Brittany Maynard took while suffering the same exact set of circumstances, what Kara has described as “a road that feels simply impossible to walk.”  Kara Tippett wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard.  You can read it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/  Rather than the rhetorical broadsides, “in principle” arguments and political salvos that I have read elsewhere, this “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” approach has such power for me.  How I wish that Brittany and Kara could have sat together, talked together and cried together.  And how I wish we could have all been there to eavesdrop on that imagined moment.   I suspect that in the solidarity of their suffering, there would have been much for us to learn about how to face our own dying, and the dying of those we love the most, with dignity and in faith.  As Dr. Candi K. Cann, a Professor of Comparative Religion down at Baylor University, has written –

This is a complex issue that requires an equally complex response. I would agree that there is beauty to be found in both suffering and in death: a kind of beauty and embracing of life that one only finds when faced with the last breaths and days of someone we love who does not want to die. I believe that we learn lessons in sickness, in suffering, in dying, and in walking that journey with someone who is dying, but I also believe that it is easy for one person to judge another’s capacity for suffering based on their own experiences and prejudices. …Both Brittany and Kara write beautiful justifications for their positions on life (and death), and I admire both women — Brittany for taking ownership of her life and the way she wants it to end, and Kara for fighting to be present with her family and to find ultimate meaning in her suffering. The world is indeed a brighter place with both of these brave women shining light on these important issues and our need to bring death into the conversation of our daily lives. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-candi-k-cann/two-perspectives-assisted_b_5960716.html


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Gold, Frankincense and Flu



I got a flu shot for Thanksgiving.
I got the flu for Christmas.

It started with a cough on the Thursday after Christmas Day.  On Friday morning my sinuses were involved, by Friday afternoon chills and body aches had joined the party, and by Saturday I was down for the count.  I barely moved for the next four days.  I was good and sick; the kind of sick when you just don’t care.  I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t eat.  I couldn’t get comfortable.  I wouldn’t be comforted.  I was just flat out miserable, and making my loved ones, my caretakers miserable as well.  When my downhill slide finally flattened out and I gradually began to rebound, I began to think about the meaning of being sick.

Christmas is the season of Emmanuel – the celebration of the “God who is with us” (Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14).  The author of Hebrews makes the most of this affirmation in his teaching about Christ’s full identification with us in our shared humanity –

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

So, does this mean that Jesus had the flu when He because flesh and dwelt among us?  If His ability to “sympathize with our weaknesses” is the result of the fact that in His full humanity, Jesus Christ “in every respect has been tempted/tested as we are,” then I am certainly inclined to think so.  In fact, in the prophetic description of His person and work in Isaiah 53:4-5, it was said of the Messiah –

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.

This text provides me with some basis for thinking that Jesus in the days of His flesh ran a fever and had the chills. In – “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) – I think I can include the flu.  Of course, this is speculative.  What I have no doubts about whatsoever is the fact that in the redemption that God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and is right now in the process applying to our hearts as individuals and to the world in general through the Holy Spirit is the elimination of flu.  It’s part of
what’s got to go on that day when God will finally and fully “wipe away every tear from every eye; and there shall be no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4).  Many of my Pentecostal friends want me to believe that if I could just muster up enough faith, that this could be my reality right here and right now.  But I am persuaded by Scripture that such an idea is an “unwarranted anticipation” of the future that God has promised.  I believe that it will come, that the flu will be done away with once and for all in the redemption of my body in the day of resurrection when Christ returns (Romans 8:18-23). But that’s “not yet.”  And this means that we are all going to have weeks like the one that I’ve just come though. Oh, it would be nice if there was a shot that we could take that would solve the problem of the flu, but there’s not, at least not yet.  What we’ve got is eschatology – the doctrine of last things.

At a men’s retreat a few years back I was roundly criticized and mocked by a ministerial colleague for teaching a workshop on the different theories of interpretation about what the Bible tells us will occur in the last days.  He saw it as a big waste of time.  “What good does any of this do when I’m sitting at a hospital bedside or standing at a graveside?” he demanded to know.  “It’s spiritual minutia and theological claptrap in the category of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,’” my colleague insisted, “junk that distracts us and obstructs us from really dealing with the things that matter.” I disagreed with him then, and now.

In I Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Apostle Paul dealt with a pastoral crisis in that community of faith by reviewing with them the things that he told them about the end times when he had been with them planting the church.  “We do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (4:13). And then, after working through what will happen at the close of the age one more time with them, Paul concluded his excursion into eschatology with the exhortation: “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (4:18).  It was an examination of revealed truth and not just an emotional pep talk that spiritually sustained the Thessalonians in their day of trial.   Paul didn’t pin their hope up in a vacuum, but instead rooted and grounded it in an affirmation of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ, and in what He has promised to finish.

In I Corinthians 15, at the end of one of the longest chapters in the New Testament – a chapter all about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and what it means for us when we die and/or when the world ends – Paul ended his eschatological reflections with this charge: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58).  In other words, the courage and stamina that we need for this world finds its reserves in the promises that God makes about what will happen in the next world.  And so, last week when I was down with the flu, the only thing that helped was lots of bed rest, Advil, a decongestant, and eschatology.  DBS+

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