The Greatest Independence Day, Yet!

My first summer as a pastor in Pontiac, I saw a sight that just tore me into pieces.  A local church had a float in the parade with soldiers holding weapons and a cross painted as or wrapped in the flag.  Why was that troubling?  Well, in my opinion, too much nationalism can be a dangerous thing when it obscures God’s message or when it is put above God’s Word.

I am a patriot.  Absolutely.  I love that I live in this country and I want the best for this country and everyone in it…but I firmly believe that we can not let that obscure that God is above any flag and loves the people under every flag!

God is above any flag and loves the people under every flag!

The message that I read in scripture is that God loves the world and wants the best for everyone in it, not just the United States.  In fact, in history it is the times when nationalism is put above the Word of God that people are hurt.  When the Hebrew people came into the land of Caanan with more nationalism and sense of entitlement than grace of God they slaughtered everyone and took the land by force.  When Europeans put nationalism and a sense of entitlement before God’s grace a native people were ravaged, their people killed, and cultures nearly wiped out.  When Medieval religious zealots put nationalism and a sense of entitlement before God’s grace a long terrible series of “Holy” Crusades tore apart Palestine and Europe and destroyed Muslim, Christian, and Jew, alike.  If you haven’t put it together on your own, let me point out what I see:  In each of these cases (and there are many more examples) religious rhetoric was used to mask what was clearly done out of a sense of selfishness, greed, and national/cultural/ethno-centrism.  Put another way?  Nationalism and a sense of entitlement were put above God’s Word and God’s apparent desires!

So, when I come to each Fourth of July I do feel pride in our nation and I do feel patriotism…but it also reminds me that we are one nation among many and we cannot forget our place and our greatness.  Our greatness stands under God’s and our needs and desires, while important, are not more important than others.  So we can and should love our nation and support our olympians, teams, and troops…but we should do so remembering that we do not have to diminish others or God in order to feel love for our own nation and our actions as a country are not necessarily righteous.

I write this blog out of a love for this nation and because I truly hope for greatness from our country.  I believe there are great things about this country and I believe greater things are possible for us and by us…if we can focus on the sacred worth of all people and ensure that the dignity of all people is upheld…if we look to the ‘least of these’ to provide love, health, hospitality, witness, and safety…if we find creative new ways to work toward peace and God’s-justice in the world!

I am a patriot, but some of the patriotic rhetoric and imagery that confuses nationalism with religion frightens me.  Let us consider, this Fourth of July, the greatness of this nation, but also God’s work we must accomplish to make it ever greater and more grace-filled.  On this Fourth of July let us remember that our forefathers were working to find new forms of freedom and find a more perfect government…and that work, in the history of America, is an unfolding one!!!  May this be the greatest Independence Day yet as we imagine not just an already-great nation, but an even greater nation under God.

blessings this Fourth of July!

Resurrection & New Life:  Approaching New Life
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Starting today I want to focus on the Easter experience.  For those who might not be sure what that means…I want to focus on what it means to have new life.  Do you have a story or reflection on what it means to have new life in Christ?  Please email or comment below so that I can publish your reflections during the season of Eastertide (Apr. 8 – May 26)

Scripture today:  John 12:20-36 (CEB)

I want to focus, especially upon this part of the scripture:

Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One[a] to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me. 27 “Now I am deeply troubled.[b] What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. 28 Father, glorify your name!” 

As most of my readers probably know, by now, I have been re-appointed to First United Methodist Church in Normal.  In case you aren’t familiar with the United Methodist Church, it works like this:  Each year I am told whether I will be staying at the church where I am appointed or whether I will move.

Finding out that I was moving was a strange situation because everyone at my current church is naturally curious about where I am going (and when) and people naturally expect for me to be excited, but on the other hand I am leaving behind a community of people who I care about.  I think about Christ, in this regard.  I think about how mixed up Jesus and those who believed must have felt as they approached the cross.  It must have been exciting for Him to go on to God’s glory and yet heading toward one’s own death and suffering just simply isn’t!  As Christ moves toward the Easter experience, toward being killed, he admits that there is real trouble upon his soul.  He says, “What Am I supposed to do,”  “Should I want this or not?”  When you read this passage you can feel Jesus’ mixed emotions about what lay before.

We will come to many moments like this in our lives.  We will all have times where we wonder about the road ahead.  For me, I must worry about how I will work with a new church and if you think I look forward to packing boxes, then, think again!  Yet, I face the packing because it is what I must endure in order to experience a new life.  I must let go of relationships and people who I hold dear in this Pontiac-life, so that I can experience the new life (the Normal-life?).  God seldom calls us to turn away or to turn back, you see.  God calls us to walk forward and step out in new ministry.  As we prepare for Easter we must ask ourselves, “What is God calling me to do,” or maybe:  “Is God calling me to a new life this Easter (to do something new)?”

Pain & Empathy

Recently I told someone that I’ve had a headache since February 7 and the person responded in a way that I felt they were minimizing me, “Oh, now, come on, Scott…” they said.  No.  I won’t come on.  Seriously, I’ve had a headache since February 7.  A two centimeter (in diameter) piece of my brain was taken out and my head has hurt consistently since.  Sometimes it feels like what I’d call a “normal” tension headache and other times I find myself completely debilitated.

Usually it feels like there is a rubber band connected between my temple and the back of my head and sometimes it feels tight and “pops” with pain and other times, especially after I’ve taken medicine, it feels looser and less-noticable.

I say all of this not for pity, but with a point in mind.  Even before I was a pastor, my life has always seems to intersect with people who were hurting.  That’s not a bad thing to me, btw, but there have been many people I have sat (or stood) with and heard words like:

“My back just always hurts”
“Every since my surgery I can’t sleep”
“My sciatica keeps me from _______.”

Before my own recent experience, I guess I tucked these people into my prayer list and must have thought “oh, that’s too bad for them.”  I could sympathize, I guess (I could feel bad for them), but I had never felt pain that wouldn’t go away so I couldn’t empathize.

Pain in my life has always been fleeting.  In a way, that is weird to say.  Before this surgery I might have told you that I had experienced pain, but I, now, don’t think I had.  Oh sure, I have had headaches from time to time and I’ve had spasms, cuts, bumps, bruises and sores…   but I had never before experienced pain that wouldn’t go away and pain that  doctors simply called, “expected.”  Think about it: that means that there is nothing to do about it.  Pain that just “is.”

What I realize is: many of the older members of my congregation, especially, know what it is to have pain that just ‘is.’  Pain that is expected and pain, for which, there is nothing to be done.  Before a few months ago, I would have prayed for these prayer concerns without knowing anything of what they have felt, but now I have empathy for what these people endure.  I feel a pain inside that doesn’t simply go away or subside.

I wonder if that is why Christ was so willing to die upon the cross for us?  Until God felt our human pain, until God has walked a short distance in our shoes, God could not entirely understand us:  could not entirely love us as God wished to.  Perhaps, by feeling our pain, God and humanity could dwell within one another and have wholeness in a way that we could not otherwise experience!

As we come into Holy Week and as we consider what it means for us that Jesus suffered, we need to consider what it means that we should love others as Christ loves us.  Does that mean that we must suffer as others suffer?  Does that mean that we must experience what others experience?  Does that mean, as people of faith, we must open up our hearts to feel ‘the other?’