Social Distancing as an Act of Love — A Sermon in Absentia

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PC: Lipscomb University (Kristi Jones)

I spent a significant number of years delivering Sunday morning sermons, but that is no longer part of my life. Even if it was, our local churches are canceling services due to the pandemic, so where would I deliver a sermon anyway? But a sermon came to me nonetheless, so I will just deliver it right here. I have titled it: Social Distancing as an Act of Love—A Sermon in Absentia.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 (NRSV)

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The Incarnation serves as the foundation of the Gospel. God came and “lived among us”—or as Eugene Peterson put it, “moved into the neighborhood.” God’s love is such that God simply could not stand to be at a distance. God came near.

GOD with us. God WITH us.  God with US.

God did this in the humanity of Jesus, and in Jesus we see “the image of the invisible God.” We see what a walking-talking-breathing God looks like, and in Jesus we encounter one who notices the unnoticeable, one who touches the untouchable.

So we aren’t even surprised when we hear Jesus tell a story in Luke 15 about a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep and goes traipsing all over the countryside to find the goofy one who wandered off. And how he is giddy with joy as he carries it home draped across his shoulders. Of course he does. That’s God. So we are even less surprised at the follow-up story about a woman who still has nine coins but turns the house upside down looking for the one that is MIA. And how she throws a party like she won the lottery when she found that crazy coin of hers. Of course she did. That’s God.

But Jesus can be a little hard to figure at times.

That same Jesus, the one who moved into the neighborhood, that God-image who chases after lost folks and embraces them in bear hugs says nutty stuff like, “It’s better for you that I leave.” Um, what? He was apparently serious. (If you don’t believe me, check out John 16:7, MSG.) And back in Luke 15, right after those stories that picture God on a search and rescue, Jesus offers a third story where God is a dad who loses a son—and just lets him walk away. Doesn’t even follow him down the driveway.

That’s what has me thinking today. Love typically seeks people out, brings people close with hugs and high fives and holy smooches. But maybe sometimes love allows for distance.

In this time of pandemic, we are advised that the way to love your neighbor is to keep them at a distance. That feels so counterintuitive because, well, it typically is. But maybe not always.

My wife and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Our oldest daughter lives in Los Angeles. Our youngest daughter lives in San Antonio. Our family practices social distancing all the time now. How did we let all that happen? Every once in a while it dawns on me how wrong that seems, and every once in a while it really hits me hard how much better it would be to be in close proximity to both of our sweet daughters. But more often I remember that it isn’t always right or better simply to be in the same zip code.

Love might can be gauged, but I don’t recommend a tape measure. Sometimes love draws near. Sometime love stands at a distance.

The last official event before spring break at Lipscomb University as announcements were made about an extended break and online classes was the Welcome to Our World Fashion Show, hosted by our Office of Intercultural Development. It was as beautiful as I anticipated. In a time of global pandemic, it felt so appropriate to recognize that our world is bound together in important ways. The closing line of the show reminded us that there is UNITY in DIVERSITY. That there can be a oneness in our many-ness.

I guess what I am saying is that from time to time there can also be a knitting together of hearts in a period of social distancing, as strange as that may seem.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always ‘me first,’
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
 – 1st Corinthians 13: 4-7 (MSG)

When Times Are Hard…

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I confess that it felt good to get in the car with my wife and drive away for a little while.  2020 has had an inauspicious start.  Last week’s tornadoes devastated our community and garnered national attention (and a presidential visit), but the tornadic metaphor—a swirling disruptive force—has characterized the past couple of months at work and in our community.

We weren’t running away, although I can sympathize with an urge to do so. Instead, we drove to Virginia to cheer on our men’s basketball team in their championship game against heavily-favored Liberty with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.

As we drove from Nashville heading east we saw what the storm left behind. We traveled through Putnam County and Cookeville, which took the brunt of the storm, and silently ached with that grieving community. But eventually, thoughts of the storm began to fade as we ventured into new territory.

We skirted the Smokies and entered southwestern Virginia, an area of the country that I had never visited. Although not spectacular, the meandering countryside and hills were charming, and I thought that they just might be spectacular when the denuded winter trees are explosions of color in autumn. We drove through Roanoke, where I tried unsuccessfully to remember why everyone has heard of Roanoke, before arriving in Lynchburg to spend the night.

Early Sunday morning I drove downtown for a run. It was 28 degrees, a fact I share just for a little sympathy, and I did a five-miler along the river and through the cobblestone streets of an historic downtown. At one point I ran up a steep downtown street, drawn toward an impressive building I later learned was called Monument Terrace. When I arrived, I continued huffing and puffing up what seemed like a million stairs, and as I climbed the name of the building became clear as I passed multiple monuments to the city’s citizens who died in wars throughout American history. At the top, I looked back on the hill I had climbed, the river, and the early morning sun.

I got to thinking.

2020 has been a hard year so far. But there have been a lot of hard years for a lot of people. Climbing that hill, climbing those stairs, seeing those monuments of lives lost reminded me of the reality of life and the universality of struggle. The lesson that occurred to me: Don’t stop climbing.

On Friday night, before leaving Nashville, we went to see talented Lipscomb students in a dance concert titled, Elevate: A Heavenly View. That’s what I thought about at the top of those crazy stairs on a frigid morning in what has been a challenging year: When times are hard—Elevate.

#NashvilleStrong

Their Eyes Were Watching God

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“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His.  They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Read more novels. That was #2 on my list of 20 goals for 2020, and I have read four so far, including the classic from Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was probably Oprah’s made-for-television adaptation in 2005 that placed the captivating title in my subconscious, and I am glad. Whatever made me pick up a copy at the used bookstore has my deep gratitude. What a powerful and beautiful story.

I won’t soon forget the primary characters, including the moment I walked with them into the line that generated the title of the book. Having lived through a powerful hurricane myself, sitting in the dark with Janie and Tea Cake as a reader was easy to do, straining and staring in awe at God.

Nor will I forget the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he attempted to share the author’s complicated life and legacy. Gates introduced me to Hurston, Barnard grad with multiple Guggenheims, prominent author and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, who died an ignominious death in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Gates showed me Hurston, criticized by her rival, Richard Wright, for the way she approached Black America in her novels, who responded that she wanted to write a novel that was “not a treatise on sociology.”  As Alice Walker (The Color Purple), whom Hurston inspired, wrote, Hurston portrayed “a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” Black people as, in a word, people.

It took all this to help me understand what captivated me so about this particular love story. I appreciate treatises on sociology, particularly those that help me develop a greater sense of race consciousness, but this was quite simply—and by “simply” I mean that highest compliment of somehow making the ineffable obvious—a human love story.

It helps me remember today that, although Black History Month is now over for 2020, black history month is, in fact, every month.

Fast Away

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“You can’t be open to new opportunities if your life is full.” – Bob Goff

I grew up in Arkansas but moved away with my wife and daughters twenty-one years ago this month, and it was obvious that we entered a new world when our move coincided with “Mardi Gras break” in our new hometown.

Everyone has heard of Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” the colorful spectacle of parades and beads and general losing of minds associated with New Orleans, but it is a cultural phenomenon across the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle. And if you don’t live there, you might not realize that it is this week.

Everyone has heard of Mardi Gras, but having grown up in a small town with very little contact with the Christian calendar, I did not understand the point of the party until I moved in next door. Fat Tuesday, the day of indulgence, precedes Ash Wednesday, the day of fasting that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

Although I grew up in a very religious environment with a strong emphasis on the Bible, the biblical practice of fasting was practically invisible to me. But I have grown to understand its great value.

We can talk food, of course, which anyone who has attempted any measure of self-control with food can appreciate, but fasting can refer to anything one chooses to do without. And we could all use some help learning how to give something—anything—up. In the workplace, I have heard it said that it is just as important (and possibly more so) to have a Stop Doing List next to your To Do List.

What do you need to stop doing?

Habit is powerful. Try breaking one, and you’ll see. But try flipping it on its head and develop a habit for stopping things. This is the week when the Christian calendar asks us to consider such a challenge.

Withdrawals

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I recently canceled my subscription to Runner’s World and replaced it with a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly. For one thing that makes me feel smarter, but more importantly, I wanted to enhance my intellectual curiosity and the broad offerings of The Atlantic promised a more balanced diet.

The first issue in 2020 did not disappoint.

Specifically, I was intrigued by Emma Green’s article, “Retreat, Christian Soldiers.”  The article introduces the town of St. Marys, Kansas, and in so doing, the Society of St. Pius X that has come to define the town. The online version of the article (located HERE) uses the headline, “The Christian Withdrawal Experiment,” and describes it this way: “Feeling out of step with the mores of contemporary life, members of a conservative-Catholic group have built a thriving community in rural Kansas. Could their flight from mainstream society be a harbinger for the nation?”

Green draws attention to Rod Dreher’s 2017 bestseller, The Benedict Option, which advocates that particular posture—withdraw and circle the wagons. Both the article and book highlight the flight of those with conservative values, but the monastic approach has been used irrespective of political preference. All types of groups have been escaping the world in search of utopian community for time immemorial.

I surely understand the motivation. Hopeful to instill specific values in our children and attracted to surrounding ourselves with said values, it is logical to gather with like-minded people in community. I get it. I even desire it from time to time.

But it isn’t my cup of tea.

I love where I grew up, so don’t here this as criticism of my beloved hometown, but when I read about St. Marys, Kansas, in certain ways I thought of Paragould, Arkansas. I grew up in a peaceful homogeneous world where values were consistent at home, church, school, and town, and I felt safe and well. Who could argue with such a thing? On the other hand, I raised my children in non-insular environments, which is risky by nature. Diversity creates friction, and friction is, well, combustible.

So I do not write today to make judgments. I went to law school and can therefore make valid arguments for—and against—both.

But I do write from my particular experience. I understand the attraction to insularity, and I understand the attraction toward diversity. For some unexplained reason, I am drawn more to the latter.

Kindertransport

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I caught a bit of the Oscars last night and found myself wondering if I might see someone from the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre walk the Hollywood red carpet someday. I am a big fan of Lipscomb Theatre! On Saturday evening my wife and I went to campus to see Kindertransport, and although I expected to be impressed, I was not prepared for the show. When I first saw the name, Kindertransport, I envisioned a play about a school bus. Oh no. Kindertransport is an intense and powerful story.

The story is historical fiction. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jewish children refugees were hastily transported out of Germany to escape the coming savagery. As Dr. Jay Geller, Professor of Modern Jewish Culture at Vanderbilt University who served as theater consultant wrote in the program, “German Jewish parents and their children faced the terrible dilemma of choosing between a perilous staying together and a temporary—quite possibly permanent—separation as well as having to imagine the parent’s possible death and the child’s possible survival.”

Kindertransport is a vivid portrayal of how that might have played out for one family. The entire cast was amazing, and thanks to their masterful storytelling, I cannot stop thinking about it.

As a former history teacher, I am always stunned when I learn of moments in world history that I had never heard of before. I learned on Saturday evening that the United Kingdom welcomed 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children before Nazi Germany closed the borders prior to the outbreak of World War II but that the United States rejected legislation to do the same based on public opinion polls. The talk-back after the show shared that a large number of Jewish refugee children actually arrived at an American port but were sent back to Germany because of the policy. How many of those children were murdered as a result of that decision?

It was easy to connect the Kindertransport story line with our friend at Pepperdine, Hung Le, simply substituting a different place and a different war (Vietnam), and how his beautiful story came to bless so many lives (read it HERE). It made me wonder what stories are being crafted today?

That is the potential power of an incredible story like Kindertransport. Aching with that mother, making it up as she went along, hoping to save her child. Aching with that little girl, also making it up as she went along, trying to survive on her own far too soon. Aching with that good soul, also in uncharted waters, attempting to welcome a stranger in need.

How will that powerful story change me?

Gifts

Ashley Lahey

Ashley Lahey entered the final semester of her senior season as the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the nation (not to mention one of the top students at Pepperdine), but more importantly to me, she ranks among the best human beings.

Ashley (reluctantly) came to the church where I preached in Malibu with her boyfriend and my good buddy, Treet, but I had no idea at the time that she was in a season of struggle. She broke down in tears at a tennis match the first time we had a brief conversation, which led to a longer sit-down where I got a glimpse of what was really in her heart. From that time on I simply had the great privilege of watching her immense intellect and strong will in action—just like on the tennis court—as she journeyed to faith. After my last sermon there, Ashley asked if I would baptize her, and I had that opportunity on my very last day living in Malibu. What a tremendous gift.

I am writing about Ashley because last week was a rough one in my world. I lost an old friend and traveled to honor his life, and on the way unexpected chaos broke out among the work I had left behind. It was a hard week. And then Friday night, sitting at home and processing all that had happened, Ashley sent a video of her sharing her faith story that day at Celebration Chapel at Pepperdine where she graciously gave me a prominent place in the story. What a sweet gift on any day, but especially for me on that day.

In the unpredictable messiness of life, the unexpected gifts are extra special.

Ashley Baptism

Finish the Race, Keep the Faith

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Note: I wrote this post before the tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas near one of my old running trails, but the message still somehow applies. RIP to Kobe, his daughter, and all who died in such a terrible accident.

When I was fourteen, Shawn invited me to run a 15k in Memphis at Oktoberfest, and since there was little adventure in our small-town Arkansas life I quickly agreed. I was bright enough to know that fifteen kilometers equaled 9.3 miles but not yet bright enough to prepare by running more than three miles in advance. Coach Watson warned us, but we were invincible junior high schoolers, so we weren’t worried.

We rose in the early morning darkness and rode the hour and a half to Memphis in a custom van with Ethan and Everett. We thought both men were ancient, although I realize now that Ethan was only fifty-three (and Everett sixty-seven). Ethan was a legend in our hometown, completing over forty marathons, including three Bostons, and Everett was a legend in several ways—college football at LSU, one-time world record holder for sit-ups, pole vaulter in the Senior Olympics. We were unable to comprehend our great privilege.

The race was something else. I had only run a couple of local 5ks, so this was the first time I had experienced the exhilaration of a major race with a thousand runners—much less the distance. Filled with adrenaline we started way too fast, and at the second mile marker I could not breathe, where it occurred to me that I still had over seven miles to go. So I let Shawn, the far better runner, go on while I slowed the pace to focus on survival. I never stopped, in spite of the monster incline up Riverside Drive near the end. I may not be a natural runner, but I am naturally stubborn.

Last weekend, thirty-five years later, I remembered that race on a seven-mile run at Percy Warner Park, alone in nature with my memories. The trail is hilly, and the temperature was frigid, and as my aging body huffed and puffed up a small mountain I remembered Shawn’s impression of the whistling sound Ethan made as he inevitably caught and passed us at each race. I had to laugh. At an overlook at the top of a major hill I stopped to gaze at the Tennessee winter forest and realized that I love Ethan and Everett now more than ever. I was in California when each passed and could not pay respects in person, but they helped shape my life. And then I thought of Shawn, killed in that tragic automobile accident so long ago. My very first running buddy.

The cold and the hills and the memories combined to bring tears to my eyes. I realized that I am the only one left from that 1984 Oktoberfest quartet, the only one left even to remember.

I decided to dedicate the run to my old friends (may they be somewhere running in peace), so I turned from the overlook and hit the trail again—alone. Not sure why I am the only one still on the course, but as long as I can I’ll keep running.

Before & After

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Four years ago I posted about a powerful book and the opportunity to hear its author speak. The book was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and four years later I have never fully recovered. When I learned that a feature film based on the book would hit the box office, I made sure to be there opening night to soak it in. Like the book and the real life it represents, the movie is disturbing, emotional, and inspirational.

But it is this special day to remember Rev. King that has me thinking about Bryan Stevenson today. Stevenson has often been interviewed about King, been given awards named after King, and even been described as one whose work best embodies King’s legacy. Although we remember King today, examples like Stevenson remind us that his famous dream is still very much alive.

And then there is the other side of the MLK equation that is represented by Howard Thurman, the “before” to Stevenson’s “after.”

Howard Thurman was a classmate of Rev. King’s father and has been described as one who had a “profound influence” on his classmate’s famous son. Legend has it that King carried a copy of Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, in his pocket during the trying days of the bus boycott in Montgomery (the city where Stevenson would later center his work).

I recently received a copy of Thurman’s important book and was stunned to consider his observation that Christianity appeared “as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Thurman continued, “That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus.”

It is difficult for me even to imagine Christianity NOT as a religion of the powerful, much less consider that its entire presentation—the very idea of “salvation”—was a path to survival to Jesus’ original audience. But it wasn’t too difficult for Thurman to imagine. Or King. Or Stevenson. Considering their writings and speeches helps me read the Bible with fresh eyes.

Today our nation rightfully remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. I am also remembering the before and the after and considering what changes that demands of me.

Law and the Bible

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I am beyond honored to teach an undergraduate course this semester titled, Law and the Bible, in Lipscomb’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice, and Society—even more honored that it is based on a course built (and using a text edited) by friend and former colleague, Professor Bob Cochran. To have the opportunity to combine my legal training and ministry experience in a classroom is pretty great, and that there are eleven brilliant and passionate students enrolled is almost too good to be true.

Professor Cochran divided the Bible in nine sections and teamed legal scholars and theologians to write each chapter (he joined his friend, Dallas Willard, to approach the Gospels) and explore what the Bible teaches about law and its relevance to current issues.

We have much to discuss.

I have a complicated relationship with politics and rarely write publicly on political issues anymore, not because I no longer have opinions, but for other reasons. To sit in a classroom, however, and consider contemporary issues starting with the Bible, that has me excited.

I confess disappointment that religious folks often react to major political moments by supporting their predetermined political candidate/party without wrestling with the individual issue at hand based on theological arguments. One would think that those who claim religion would avoid automatically supporting one political party and examine each individual situation in light of their sacred text. Maybe the penetrating question is: What is truly sacred?

I’m excited to consider such questions this semester with a gifted group of college students.