Thursday, March 29, 2018


It's called the Via Dolorosa, or "way of sorrow," and is, in popular Christian lore, the path Jesus took, carrying his cross to Golgotha, the site of his crucifixion. Fourteen "Stations of the Cross" have evolved over the years, some from moments along that journey as described in scripture, some from legends or myths that sprung up in the early years of the church. In preparing for Good Friday, I thought it might be interesting to briefly ponder the Stations...

1. Pilate Condemns Jesus to die.

Two thousand-plus years ago, and politics still played a part in the trial of Jesus the Christ. Pilate was out to keep his job, and that meant making the mob happy (his base, I guess you'd say). While Pilate saw no reason to convict Jesus, he eventually gave him over to the mob for the carrying out of the capital punishment form of the day, death by being nailed to a cross of wood. There is a temptation to give Pilate a bye because he, personally, doesn't see Jesus as a criminal. However, regardless of what he personally believed, he went with his base to spare his own neck, and Jesus was sentenced to die. I guess there are three things that never change: death, taxes, and politicians.

2. Jesus accepts his cross.

An old hymn says, "He could have called 10,000 angels, but he died alone for you and me." He probably could have, and I'll bet more than 10,000 would have showed up. From what we read of angels in the Bible, one would have been sufficient, with the flaming swords, shouts that paralyzed crowds of people, and the like. But Jesus took the cross. He'd already had that "come to Jesus' Father" meeting in Gethsemane, where he tried to pass the cup, but his resolve was set by the time he left the garden. We can argue all day about what the cross means, but the Bible and the witness of the church is clear that without the cross there is no redemption. I'm not a "blood atonement" theologian, as Jesus seems to parallel himself with the Paschal lamb, which was the lamb of freedom and deliverance, and not atonement, and the cross is clearly about delivering humanity from its sin, but from much, much more--things like mob rule, standing up for my "rights" (with God, all things are privileges), and believing that some people are better in God's eyes than others.

3. Jesus falls for the first time.

The cross was heavy, and Jesus had been scourged, which was about the nastiest beating a person could have. My guess is that the weight of the cross was infinite, because the slavery from which humanity needed to be delivered and set free was cumulative over the whole of history. When it was on Jesus' shoulders, he made Atlas look like a wuss. Under that weight and in such a weakened state, is it any wonder that Jesus fell? Maybe the first fall can be seen as standing for the fall of humanity in the earlier garden mentioned in the Bible.

4. Jesus meets his mother, Mary.

We never really know what Mary knew, beyond what the angel told her when she became "with child," that Jesus would "save his people from their sins." What did that mean? Would he be the kind of conquering king "messiah" that would overthrow the Romans? (Judas and the other Zealots sure hoped so.) Or would he be a great teacher who would lure everyone into obedience to the Torah? I'm guessing she hadn't figured on him getting beaten to a pulp, sentenced by a kangaroo court presided over by a stooge politician, and then spindled to a cross in front of Pilate's political base. It must have been shocking for her to see him laboring along that path, which, by the way, is very narrow and usually jammed shoulder to shoulder with people, even today.

5. Simon helps carry the cross.

Simon sounds like a compassionate guy. Or was he just afraid that maybe some of the stuff Jesus said about being the "Son of Man" might be true, and he was just hedging his bets? I'd give Simon the benefit of the doubt--that he had a big heart. But then our current president's White House physician, the one who gave him an overly glowing, patronizing, puffed-up, and unprofessionally prophetic medical report--was just made Secretary of Veterans Affairs, so who knows? Maybe helping Jesus carry his cross was Simon's way of getting to sit at his right hand in the Kingdom of God, and if so, it was probably a much better ploy than the argument that the "Sons of Thunder" had around the dinner table.

6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

This is one of the not-very-scriptural stories that has been passed down. However, I'm sure that since women were attracted to Jesus, one would have stepped out of the crowd to wipe his brow as he fought the cross. Now, when I say "attracted," I am not suggesting that it was physical, as Isaiah's prophecy of the Messiah says that he would be "nothing to look at." He did speak as one having a quiet, yet genuine authority, wasn't a bully, and never--even once--acted superior to women. If anything, he was the first historical figure to totally get them, to speak publicly with them, and to praise their faith. He seemed to have much more patience with women than he did with men, and who can blame him? Even in his day, testosterone was a rabid problem. He always seemed to relaxed around women, except that time when he got torqued at his Mom for rushing him into the wine-making game.

7. Jesus falls for the second time.

I'll bet this second fall is symbolic of the second fall the Jerusalem Temple would soon take, and that being itself symbolic of the fall of the institutional religion that much of Judaism had become. God seems to be a glutton for punishment when it comes to time-and-time again putting trust into human religious institutions. We "religious types" are constantly dogmatizing stuff that Jesus handed out gracefully to all, and drawing lines that God refuses to honor. When Jesus said the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church, was he fearing that human religious leaders were a bigger threat  to it than even Satan? Satan is small potatoes, compared to what we've done with the institutions of faith down through the ages--the Crusades, Calvin having the head of Michael Servetus lopped off, religious terrorists, slavery and "separate but equal" sanctuaries, the unruly mob labeled evangelicals today. If this second fall was for Jesus' fears for what we'd make of things, it's amazing that he got back up at all.

8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

See Station 6 above. Women definitely come out on top in this Station story, and in the life of Jesus. I think the women came because, unlike most of the men, they got Jesus. In him they saw their full acceptance, inclusion, and liberation. After all, he had a hand in creating them, and they weren't made just to be baby incubators and sexual playthings. They were children of God equal to any man, and superior to most. In Jesus, they got their just due.

9. Jesus falls for the third time.

Third time's the charm. After this stumble, it was on to the cross and then to Hell to release the captives--and the rest of us! This third fall could stand for the pinning of Satan to the mat, or for the last gasp of the enslaving power of sin, selfishness, and worldly power. Jesus wrestled them all to the mat. Game over.

10. Jesus is stripped of his clothes.

He was going to leave this life the way he came. Ultimately, we all do, even though we may be laid out in our Sunday best. That the soldiers gambled for his garments is another sign of human disdain for people who wield gentle power. Testosterone on parade. Of course, the next time these guys see Jesus, he'll be wearing different togs and ready to pull rank on the robe-robbers. (Nope, that's just me wanting him to get even--I'll bet he'll welcome them in grace and love, too!)

11. Jesus is nailed to the cross.

Hammer time. I read a story once about the custom of the debtors' prisons of Jesus' time. When someone was guilty of a debt they could not pay, they would be thrown into a prison cell, and a piece of parchment with the amount of their debt was nailed to the wooden door of the cell. If someone paid the debt for the poor guy, at some point, another piece of parchment with the Greek word tetelestai was nailed over the debt document, and the man was set free. Tetelestai is the word Jesus yelled from the cross: "It is finished," or literally, "Paid in Full!" Cool, huh?

12. Jesus dies on the cross.

Can God really die? Jurgen Moltmann thought so. That was God on the cross, he argued in his landmark book, The Crucified God. Elie Wiesel, the late Nobel Prize winning author and survivor of the Holocaust, told of a time when his group of prisoners was being ushered to dinner, and as they passed a gallows, a small Jewish boy about twelve years old, was writhing from a rope, having been hanged for disobeying a German soldier. As they passed the dying boy, Wiesel thought to himself, "Where is God now?" He would later write that, at that very moment, he heard a still, small voice whisper in his mind, "I'm right up here, hanging with this boy." Wiesel said that his faith was forever altered by this moment. So is ours, when Jesus shoulders the weight of the world's sin and gives up his spirit.

13. Jesus is taken down from the cross.

They could have left him up there, that mob and those soldiers, for his body to bake in the sun, and to be devoured by vultures, or something. Maybe it was the intentionality with which he died? Maybe it was one of those "seven last words" that got them--"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Whatever, they took Jesus' body down, and because he was homeless and poor, they gave his body to those who asked for it, the women and the remnant of the disciples. "They cut me down and I leaped up high, I am the life that will never, never die! I'll live in you if you'll live in me, I am the Lord of the Dance said he!" Shall we dance?

14. Jesus is placed in the tomb.

A tomb could not hold Jesus any more than a jar can hold sunlight. According to the great tradition of the church, Jesus made a few "visits" during the days in that tomb, releasing captives and preparing for a new "glorified" body that has all of the benefits of the one we have, only without the ravages of sin, disease, or the limits of temporal existence. Kind of cosmic stuff. That's why the writer of I John writes, "Beloved, we are children of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (I John 3:2) Tombs are holding tanks for eternal transformation--cocoons, as it were. For Jesus, the tomb was the affirmation of both a death (he really died--he didn't just "swoon," as some skeptics would later say) and a launching pad for new life. The cross is the symbol Christians wear because it was where Jesus was "stapled" to humanity for all eternity, that we may be freed and redeemed, but the empty tomb is what differentiates us from other theological constructs of how God and people relate. "Up from the grave he arose!" (Yeah, I know that the Stations of the Cross end on Good Friday, but since we are the Post-Resurrection Community, it's really hard to not move on to the "Fifteenth Station," the Risen Jesus!)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

April Fools...

Some say it began back in the 1700s as a "prank day," others tie it to the Vernal Equinox. If you Google it, you will find several hundred theories as to what gave birth to "All Fool's Day," or "April Fools." Here's one thing I read:

These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs and being referred to as “poisson d’avril” (April fish), said to symbolize a young, easily caught fish and a gullible person.

Wow, that must have been a blast. I guess you had to be there, as they say.

I also found a site called "Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time" ( that ranks some of the wildest ones including:

1. The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest - a video played on BBC TV stations back in 1957, showing people harvesting spaghetti noodles from trees.

3. The Eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe - a long dormant volcano in Sitka, Alaska, where some joker in 1974 hauled a bunch of old tires up the snow-covered slope at night, and lit them on fire so the locals awoke to what appeared to be the beginnings of an eruption.

7. The Taco Liberty Bell -  an ad run by the famous Mexican junk food purveyor Taco Bell in 1996, saying they had purchased the naming rights to the Liberty Bell. So many gullible people were outraged that President Clinton's press secretary Mike McCurry actually got questions about it at a press conference. Thinking quickly on his feet, McCurry (who is now an ordained U.M. pastor and instructor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.) stated that it was true, and that the rights to the Lincoln Memorial has also been sold, now to be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

10. Nixon for President -  a 1992 gag where it was reported that former President Richard Nixon was going to run for the office again using the slogan "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again."

20. Left-Handed Whopper -  in an April Fools' Day 1998 ad, Burger King touted a new "left-handed Whopper sandwich," complete with a schematic drawing of it. Thousands of goofs asked tried to order it.

Every one of these 100 "Hoaxes of All Time" are accompanied by the disclosure that many people were fooled. Is it any wonder that authors of REAL fake news on some of those internet sites gather adherents. It sure explains Fox "News."

Actually, there is a secret goof in all of us, I believe. There is a tiny nook in our psyche that wants believe in miracle cures, benevolent aliens, get-rich-quick schemes, and virtually anything that is capable of suddenly launching our joy of living into warp speed. If a story about something extraordinary like that is made even the slightest bit convincing, we may fall for it. Now, there is some kind of a continuum at work here whereby some of us are more gullible than others, with skeptics on one end, and Publisher's Clearinghouse "sure winners" on the other. Unfortunately, some of the more easily fooled are also easily fleeced, hence the proverb, "A fool and his money are soon parted."

Skeptics and atheists put religion on the "easily fooled" end of this spectrum, usually because they begin from the "there is no God" point of view. If that is your premise, then it's easy to see how they can be critical of persons of faith. Oh, and many persons of faith have helped the skeptics' cause: Ku Klux Klan and religious fundamentalists of all faiths have espoused hatred, vengefulness, and even terrorism in the name of their "faith." I confess to being weakened in my own Christian faith when I hear of some bunch saying or even doing horrible things in the name of Christianity, including the current acceptance of "the end justifies the means" by "evangelicals" by defending the moral failures of our Commander in Chief because he is naming the "right" Supreme Court Justices or encouraging the incursion of their religion into the affairs of state. Sounds like an "easily fooled" move to me.

In fact, Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus have long been seen in church history as a divine "prank" or "April Fools" joke on the devil. There is actually a group of people who call themselves "The Fellowship of Merry Christians"--publishers of The Joyful Noiseletter--who like to continue to bring the best "April Fools" humor and Easter in close proximity. The idea that the religious leaders who encouraged the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman government who carried it out, and Satan himself, who purportedly wanted Jesus to fail at his quest of redeeming humankind, were all bamboozled by the Resurrection is, in itself, a divine prank. Even the Apostle Paul gets into the comedy when he writes, "...the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us being saved, it is the power of God" (I Corinthians 1:18) and "We are fools for Christ's sake..." (I Corinthians 4:10).

There is a reason we call it the Christian "faith." Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "...the substance of of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen..." We read the testimonies of Jesus Christ in the Bible, hear the stories of persons of faith who have gone before us, and based on these witnesses and accounts, we come to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of the Christian experience. We remain "fools for Christ" because there is no way to prove this stuff, any more than we can "prove" that the Beatles are the greatest band that ever lived or that Black Holes are exactly what Stephen Hawking said they were. That doesn't make them any less impactful on human history, and believe me, the Jesus story has impacted history far, far more than the Fab Four or the late theoretical physicist (this is the year 2018--two-thousand and eighteen years after the Christ event!). Can we prove that Jesus is alive and seated at the right hand of God? Or that the Holy Spirit resides in the hearts and lives of believers and their church? Nope. We choose to believe this stuff because we're "fools for Christ's sake." And don't let your believe be a smug belief--if God "desires that none should perish" (II Peter 3:9), we should too, and be about this pursuit, rather than grooving on the idea that we are counted among the sheep rather than the goats. Being a fool for Christ's sake means we believe the whole world is worthy of God's love, grace, and redemption, and that Christ did the heaving lifting to make this come true. Now, we just have to partner together to fix things and spread the love around. There is a reason our tale is called "Good News," and not just "Good News for some, sorry about the rest of you."

If there is anything that speaks of the genuineness of our Christian faith, it is that God didn't make the Resurrection an nationally-televised reality show. The scriptural accounts suggest it was a "quiet" occasion with no fireworks, people screaming in the streets, or even universal acceptance of its occurrence. Even Thomas "doubted," and the two guys on the road to Emmaus didn't even recognize the resurrected Jesus. The Romans didn't freak out, nor do we hear anything from the religious leaders like "Well, he didn't stay dead, so let's go after him!" Instead, Jesus appears quietly, and to individuals or small groups of his followers. This new "faith" would be something about which each of us would have to decide, not a Hollywood moment before the cameras and lights.

So, as we finish our Lenten journey through the Cross, the waiting, and the Easter promise, let us decide, or be affirmed in our decision. And let us celebrate our faith, not with raucous festivals and shouts, but with smiles and a joke or two, and the whispered words, "He is Risen!" Don't tell anybody...April Fools...

Friday, March 16, 2018

Special Election...

Nope, this one isn't going to be about what you think, either. "Election" is a term much debated in the history of Christian theology. John Calvin argued (more mildly than his followers) that God "chooses" persons to be "saved," and that unless God chooses you, you will not be part of the "elect." Jacob Arminius, a theologian/philosopher who had an influence on John Wesley of Methodist fame, advocated for a "free will" view of salvation and Christian volition--a kind of "whosoever will" thing.  Honestly, Calvin never went nuts about this "election" thing, and John Wesley didn't do an endless "free will" dance to the music of Arminius, either. Both Christian theologians approached God in a spirit of humility, underscoring God's love and grace as presented in Jesus Christ, and that we, the beneficiaries of it, should do likewise. Who "chooses" whom is far less important than the fact that God's love and God's desire to include all people trumps the numerous theological eddies human thinkers have swirled around it. Why can't we just accept that God has "chosen" to accept us?

Another topic that could come under "election" is the idea that God calls us to do stuff. On one hand, there are numerous responses, tasks, and ministries that we can just go and do, without any special prompting. The Bible is full of stuff like this--love your neighbor, feed the hungry, help the needy, random acts of kindness, etc. One doesn't need to be "touched by an angel" to commit such acts of mercy. However, if your plan is to quit your job and go out on faith to do any of these things for the rest of your life, that may be something you should listen to see if God is specifically calling you to do that. Down through the history of the church, people have gotten themselves into serious trouble by setting an overly ambitious agenda without checking with God first. Oh, and don't ever go into the ordained ministry or become a pastor without working through a call from God, either. As a former co-chairperson of our conference's Board of Ordained Ministry, a big part of our task was to listen to the call stories of potential ministerial candidates, seeking to validate them for the wider faith community. Occasionally we would hear a candidate say something like "I want to be a pastor because I always thought a church would be such a loving an peaceful place to work," or "I failed at several other careers, so I figured maybe God wanted me to become a pastor," neither of which inspired confidence in the Board that this individual had a legitimate call of God.

Actually, our theology suggests that ALL of us have a call of God on our lives, as people of faith. Every career, provided it is on the up and up and not a scam or a crime, is a vocation, which comes from the Latin, vocatio, meaning "to call" or "called." If you have never thought about what you do for a living as a call, now is a good time to start. It can bring a greater sense of purpose to your job, and maybe even provide ways to subtly witness to your faith. If you really accept that God has called you to do what you do, you may find much more fulfillment and happiness in it. And if, instead, it is a constant source of stress, anxiety, or dread, maybe it's time to do a little praying and listening to see if God has a new calling in the offing for you. The most blessed people I know are the ones who are spending their lives doing what they "know" they should be doing, and using their best gifts in doing it.

It would be nice if everyone was at this point. I often wonder if the monumental rise in the "leisure" industry is the result of many folk not working in careers they find fulfilling or that are a calling for them? So, they "work" to make enough money to do fun stuff to salve the pain through leisure activities on the weekends.

Of course, none of the ideas presented here should be taken to extremes. We can do lots of nice stuff without feeling God calling us to do them. We can have a legitimate vocation (job) that sometimes drives us nuts, but it doesn't necessarily mean we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. And we all enjoy certain leisure activities without them being some kind of compensatory medicine for a bum job. However, the well-examined life--which I think Christian people are to be about--has us at least thinking about these things, and seeking a benevolent balance. As a pastor for over 33 years, I can say it is frustrating, for example, to have parishioners turn you down for a volunteer job, saying, "Oh, pastor, I'm just SO busy!" And when you ask them what they're up to, answers include things like "Well, we're going skiing this weekend, and then next weekend we have to get the boat out, and then we're going hiking the weekend after that..."

At risk of sounding like the TV detective Columbo, there's one more thing: God sometimes calls people to short-term service, which is in the middle between the "we all should do" acts of kindness and mercy, and full-time religious service like pastoring or the mission field. Years ago, my wife felt God calling her to go on a short-term mission trip to Paraguay. I told her the church would affirm her and help her raise the necessary funds to go on the trip. And then something really weird happened--as I began to pray for her for and the trip, I heard God's "still, small voice" saying I should go with her. (By the way, we preach and teach about God's "still, small voice," but for me, it's usually a louder shout, because I can be spiritually tone-deaf.) Not being one to be excited about going to a far-off land where they don't speak my language, and where I'm going to sleep on the floor for two weeks, AND where my particular "skills" really aren't all that helpful, I resisted rather passionately. Finally, though, I gave in to this little election, and it was one of the most fulfilling and formative experiences of my Christian life.

Isn't it nice to read something about elections that doesn't involve politics, attack ads, or incessant telephone polling? You're welcome...

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

When prayer feels "empty"...

First, let me state that I believe to the very cells of my toenails in prayer. Throughout my 33 years of ministry, I've made it the fulcrum of the worship services I have led, and have supported and "enhanced" the prayer ministries of each of the churches I have served. But there are times when prayer just seems empty--like there must be SOMETHING else I can do? Have you ever felt that way? Or have you said, "I know I can pray for [her or him], BUT..." Of course, many of us felt that way when 17 people were murdered at Parkland, and "thoughts and prayers" was the best we heard from our national leaders. But let's not go there, and stay focused on our individual challenges with "You are in my prayers."

In the past couple of weeks, several people dear to me received challenging medical news or were in tragic accidents. Immediately these people entered into our church "prayer queue," and into my personal prayers as well. And as much as I've always taught that "how" to pray is not a thing, and that God hears our prayers, no matter how childlike, crude, or chaotic, I still find myself wanting to say the "perfect" prayer for these friends, meaning that it is so well structured and then prayed expertly that God will just simply have to perform miraculous healings, and right now. I taught my congregations that God is not the genie that comes from a well-rubbed lamp in time to grant our current wish, but that is exactly how I feel when praying for dear ones who are severely hurting in body and soul. I just want to rub that lamp, and get my wish. If there is anything good in this experience, it is that I now have empathy with what many of my parishioners have gone through when someone close to them is in need. I hope that God gets a kick out of the irony of this, but I'm certainly not being entertained by it. Usually, though, I get a grip, remember my own sermons, and try to visualize God hearing my prayer and acting on it in the great scheme of things.

It doesn't help that I tend to be a "fixer." Troubleshooting is apparently a genetic thing for me. When I am denied the opportunity to diagnosis and repair, I feel like the job is not done. While this might be good when it comes to fixing a faucet or doing home improvement, it's something that must be disciplined and suppressed when offering pastoral care for the sick or those with anxiety issues. Counseling is also a "no fly zone" for problem solving, and since I do quite a bit of counseling, my "fixer" self has to be reigned in pretty severely. Good counselors are good listeners, and adept at helping persons experience self-discovery, ownership of their feelings, and being gently nudged to participate in forming a care plan. And that's the problem with prayer: it is not an easy playing field for troubleshooters who want to analyze, diagnose, and prescribe a "fix," praying only to send God out for parts. No, to be true to prayer, it means turning the friend or the loved one and their need over to God, and then attuning oneself to any feedback God may have as to how we may be helpful in providing comfort. "But God, I want to do more!"

I think I'm a pretty effective "prayer," even with my penchant for grabbing stuff back to try to fix myself. And that is the second lesson in all of this: God may have a job for me to do for the individual in question, but I should not be the one writing the job description without the guidance of the Spirit. If being prompted to "let go and let God," as they say, I'm not going to "fix" the empty feeling that may initially result by just doing something. The danger in intruding into the situation without guidance and "cues" from the person in need is that I may just be complicating what is already a stressing situation for them, which is the last thing a compassionate person wants to have happen. My "empty" feeling is my problem. The truth is that prayer is anything but empty.

Now, there may be concrete factors that can cause prayer to seem empty, such as when there are things I can do about a troubling situation, and I choose to simply "hide" behind "thoughts and prayers." If I know someone is hungry and in physical need, I should feed them, or arrange for that need to be met, and then pray for them as part of this remedy. If it concerns a justice issue like racism or gun violence, prayer alone is not the solution. I know steps I can take to address these, whether it is writing letters to representatives, engaging in public debate, or helping bring people together to have strategic conversations about what we can address as a community. Prayer can be an essential ingredient in this potion, but "thoughts and prayers" should never be used to sweep vital issues of justice under the rug. There are times to put "feet to our prayers," indeed, but when dealing with deep, personal matters of friends or family, delving in cautiously and respecting the integrity, privacy, and vulnerability of the individual is paramount, and that point, praying for them becomes job one.

As a pastor, I understand the empty feelings of others when they hear of a loved one suffering and say, most sincerely, "What can we do?" As mentioned, there may be supportive, caring "human" things we can do for a hurting friend, but prayer is always huge here, and even if it feels inadequate or empty at the moment, keep praying! Never downplay God's role in healing at this level just because a genie doesn't appear.

And remember, empty is not always a bad thing. Jesus "emptied himself" of all of the privileges of being God to come among us, as it says in Philippians 2. The Apostle Paul talks of "pouring himself out" in service. Sometimes the echo of the "emptiness" allows us to hear the still, small voice of God better than when we are full of ourselves. And no matter how competent a troubleshooter we may be, none of us trumps the Creator of the Universe in fixing stuff, whether it is a broken body or a broken spirit. Blessings, All!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...