Monday, July 27, 2015

God of Grace and God of Glory

God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power;
Crown thy ancient Church's story; Bring her bud to glorious flower.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
Fears and doubts too long have bound us; Free our hearts to work and praise.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure thy children's warring madness, bend our pride to thy control.
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage lest we miss thy kingdom's goal,
Lest we miss thy kingdom's goal.

Set our feet on lofty places; gird our lives that they may be
Armored with all Christ-like graces in the fight to set men free.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage that we fail not man nor thee,
That we fail not man nor thee.

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.
Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage serving thee whom we adore,
Serving thee whom we adore.


Words by Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1878-1969
Published in The Methodist Hymnal, 1964 edition.

To read or hear the sermon that inspired this post, click here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

May we not be of one heart?

As we continue our never-ending journey of spiritual discovery, My Lovely Wife and I joined a new Sunday school class last week that, for now at least, is studying the foundations of the United Methodist Church. We are reading a book called Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It by pastor and theologian Adam Hamilton. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014)

In the first chapter, we learn about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, his family background in the context of 18th-century British religious and political history, and the beginnings of his path and ministry.

One particular passage struck a chord with me. Rather than tell you about it, I will quote it here at length:

In his introduction to Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Wesley wrote these words that capture his spirit so well:

"Would to God that all the party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot; and that we might all agree to sit down together as humble, loving disciples, at the feet of our common Master, to hear his word, to imbibe his Spirit, and to transcribe his life in our own!"

In one of his most famous sermons, "Catholic Spirit," Wesley wrote, "Though we can't think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may." Wesley was calling his hearers to listen to those with whom they disagreed and to focus on what they shared in common. He was teaching them (and us!) to build bridges rather than walls. The word catholic is a bit confusing to some, but in this context it simply means "universal." It conveys the sense that the church, the body of Christ, is made up not only of people who are in my denomination or tribe but of all who call upon the name of Christ, even if they disagree on this or that point of doctrine.

The twenty-first century is as polarized as eighteenth-century England. We're not Tories and Whigs, conformists and dissenters, Anglicans and Puritans; we're Republicans and Democrats, fundamentalists and progressives, liberals and conservatives. Yet divisiveness and conflict drain us of our spiritual vitality and leave many today longing for a different approach, an approach like Wesley's catholic spirit.

How do we embrace such an approach today? Paul described it when he admonished the believers in Philippi, who themselves were divided, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:3-5). To the Christians at Corinth, who also were deeply divided, Paul noted that love was the defining characteristic of Christian life, and then he went on to describe the character of Christian love: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Having a spirit like Wesley's today means that we assume the best of others, not the worst. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We speak well of others, not poorly. We treat them as we hope to be treated. We listen more and talk less. We walk in other people's shoes and try to understand what they believe and why. This does not mean we give up our convictions, but it does mean we test them. I've found that, after listening to another person's point of view, some ideas I was sure of were not nearly so convincing. I've found that, on more than one occasion, views that seemed utterly indefensible actually were quite convincing when I moved beyond my assumptions and took the time to listen.

I've also learned that it's easy to be adamantly opposed to a viewpoint or position -- be it theological, ethical, or political -- when no one I deeply care about holds such views. But as I get to know those with views different from my own and come to care about them and consider them my friends, it is hard to be adamantly opposed to their views.

Among the defining characteristics of the Christian life are humility, grace, and love. The test of our faith comes in how we respond to others and how willing we are to listen to, learn from, and love them.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I'm no Robin Williams, but ...

Los Angeles Times

Some people think I'm pretty funny. Much of the time, I am one of those people.

Maybe that's why Robin Williams' suicide has hit me so hard.

Many of my friends and even members of my own family probably don't know this, but I have suffered from depression, at times severe, since I was about 12 years old. It wasn't diagnosed until I was 32. Before and since then, it has caused upheaval in my life, skewing my thinking and hampering my ability to make good decisions. If My Lovely Wife were not a superhero, it would have killed our marriage long ago.

It has come close to killing me more than once. I've never attempted suicide, but during the blackest, foggiest passages of the abyss I have contemplated and even planned it. The irony is that the depression robbed me of the initiative to go through with it.

It pisses me off because at various times I have thought I was free of this depression, but it always comes back.

About three years ago I tumbled into one of the deepest, darkest emotional pits I've ever known. I could barely function; somehow, by the grace of God, I managed not to get fired from my job during this period. I had daily panic attacks, and I couldn't hold my bladder. I thought about death, obsessively, every day for months -- usually in a positive light.

Thank God I was able to ask for help. An attentive and compassionate doctor put me on a particular medication, but it had no effect. We switched to a different drug, and almost immediately I started showing symptoms of mania.

I was freaking out, believing that I was slipping down a well-greased slope to full-on psychosis. I didn't want to be that nice, smart, funny guy who went crazy and spent the rest of his life as a friendless, homeless lunatic bothering people on the train. As my irrational mind reasoned it out, it seemed better to me to go to my eternal rest than to spend my remaining years as an object of pity and horror.

That's when the miracle happened. Miracle, thy name is Prozac.

I know Prozac (fluoxetine) has gotten a fair amount of bad press over the years, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms: Prozac saved my life. Now I take a fairly hefty dose of it every morning, paired with timed doses of Buspar (buspirone) that help keep me on an even keel throughout the day.

I also have been seeing a therapist on a regular basis. For a while, just last year, I was placed in intensive (outpatient) therapy, where I met a number of other people who were struggling as I was, each in his or her own way. These were private battles, but we were all in it together, and somehow that was comforting.

And now, with these therapies and after making some desperately needed changes in my life, I am happier and healthier than I've been in a very long time. What had seemed impossible has become my daily reality. I'm me again.

When one drug or therapy or therapist doesn't work for you, it doesn't mean you're beyond help; it simply means that particular drug or therapy or therapist doesn't work for you at this time. There are plenty out there, and it's worth trying out as many as necessary to find one that helps you start feeling normal again.

And that's a key understanding: These are not "happy pills" that artificially raise your mood and turn you into a grinning idiot; they are chemotherapy that kills the cancer of depression that makes you feel abnormally bad. They pull you back to normal.

I had forgotten what normal was. Although I was still quick with a comeback or a one-liner or a wry Facebook comment, I had forgotten what joy and peace felt like. I thought -- I really believed -- they were lost to me forever.

That's the lie that depression tells you, over and over again like the relentless beat of house music: It's never going to get better; things will always be the way they are right now, or worse; there is no hope.

But that's a lie straight out of the pits of hell. ("He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies." John 8:44b)

There is hope, even if you can't see it right now. Fight for your life. As the poet Charles Bukowski wrote, "Your life is your life. Don't let it be clubbed into dank submission. Be on the watch: There are ways out. There is light somewhere."

If you feel profoundly sad, or hopeless, or angry, or listless, or confused, or forgotten, or lonely, or worthless, or anxious, please, please, talk to someone. Talk to someone who will listen, someone who is willing to walk alongside you on the winding path to getting better. These feelings seem completely real, but they are not normal, they are not right, and there are ways out.

I'm testimony -- living testimony -- to that.

I am heartbroken for Robin Williams and for those who loved him. But I am grateful for the many gifts he gave us, not least of which was an opening for this conversation.

Beloved, seek peace and pursue it. "You are marvelous; the gods wait to delight in you."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Goodbye and welcome

Barring a spectacular miracle of God, there is soon going to be a death in my family. My heart breaks over it. Too young. Too soon. Too painful. Too unfair. Too much.

Yet we do not grieve in the same way as those who have no hope. Because I believe in God and believe his word, I believe we are eternal beings, and the time we spend in what we call life is merely a passage on a never-ending journey. From the eternal perspective, death is not the bold demarcation line we make it out to be. It is merely a transition from one phase of eternity to the next. Grievously painful for those of us who are left behind and who will miss our loved one for the rest of our earthly lives, but a joyous graduation for the one making the transition.

A friend recently gave me the book Come Thirsty by Max Lucado (2004, W Publishing Group, Nashville, TN). One chapter in particular, titled "When Death Becomes Birth," has been a great comfort to me as I sadly await the inevitable news from my hometown. Here is an excerpt:

You, as all God's children, live one final breath from your own funeral.

Which, from God's perspective, is nothing to grieve. He responds to these grave facts with this great news: "The day you die is better than the day you are born" (Ecclesiastes 7:1). Now there is a twist. Heaven enjoys a maternity-ward reaction to funerals. Angels watch body burials the same way grandparents monitor delivery room doors. "He'll be coming through any minute!" They can't wait to see the new arrival. While we're driving hearses and wearing black, they're hanging pink and blue streamers and passing out cigars. We don't grieve when babies enter the world. The hosts of heaven don't weep when we leave it. ...

Your death may surprise you and sadden others, but heaven knows no untimely death: "You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed" (Psalm 139:16). ...

For all who doubt his power, Jesus has three words: "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43). ...

Heaven-happy Lazarus doesn't question the call. Perfect understanding comes with a heavenly passport. He doesn't object. But had he done so, who could have faulted him? His heavenly body knows no fever. His future knows no fear. He indwells a city that is void of padlocks, prisons, and Prozac. ... Would anyone blame Lazarus for saying, "Do I have to go back?"

But he doesn't second-guess the command. ... With a wave and within a wink, he's reunited with his body and waking up on a cold slab in a wall-hewn grave. ...

We read and may ask, "Why did Jesus let him die only to call him back?"

To show who runs the show. To trump the cemetery card. To display the unsquashable strength of the One who danced the Watusi on the neck of the devil, who stood face to clammy face with death and declared, "You call that a dead end? I call it an escalator."

"Lazarus, come out!"

These words, incidentally , were only a warmup for the the big day. He's preparing a worldwide grave evacuation. "Joe, come out!" "Maria, come out!" ("Bridget, come out!" "Matthew, come out!" "Jack, come out!" "Honey, come out!" "David, come out!" "Ruth, come out!" "Jason, come out!" - Ed.) Grave after grave will empty. What happened to Lazarus will happen to us. ...

When this happens -- when our perishable earthly bodies have been transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die -- then at last the Scriptures will come true:

"Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"
(1 Corinthians 15: 54-55)

Till then, where does that leave us? It leaves us checking our list of friends. Because Lazarus called Jesus his friend, Jesus called Lazarus from the grave. ...

Dread of death ends when you know heaven is your true home.

Yes, we grieve, as we should. We are going to miss our loved one, and mourn for what might have been done with a few more years. But our grief is soothed by the balm of hope.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fly away, Earle Bird

Of the six cats we've had, Earle was the only one who introduced herself by name.

Sometime before 2006, My Lovely Wife had become telephone friends with a woman in Hillsdale, Michigan, with whom she played online games, but they had never met in person. The woman's name was Earle (pronounced "Early"), apparently because her father had wanted a boy. (Her sisters' names were Winifred and Honora; it's best not to ask too many questions.)

Earle lived alone in a little apartment with her cat, Prissy. Earle was obese, she smoked a lot, and she was in generally poor health. Prissy and the Internet were just about all she had. One day when they were chatting, Earle told MLW that she was planning to have Prissy put to sleep should anything happen to Earle, because she didn't know who in the world would take her in and give her the kind of attention to which she was accustomed.

"That's crazy," MLW told her. "I'll take your cat if anything happens to you."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Gracism in Georgia

It was a beautiful service Sunday at North Decatur United Methodist Church. A baby girl, backed by a huge entourage of family and friends, was baptized. A beaming Pastor Dalton Rushing tenderly carried her up and down the aisles as the whole congregation sang a sweet lullaby to her:

Caroline, Caroline, God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too.
We this day do all agree a child of God you'll always be. 
Caroline, Caroline, God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too.
We your family love you so, we vow to help your faith to grow.
Caroline, Caroline, God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too.
We are here to say this day that we will help you on your way.
Caroline, Caroline, God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too.
And if you should tire or cry, then we will sing this lullaby.
Caroline, Caroline, God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too.

I'm new to the Methodist tradition, so I don't know if this is standard baptism procedure. Regardless, it was beautiful and touching.

After the service ended, I walked through the narthex to say hello to the pastor in the open doorway before heading home. Dalton said he had a book for me and asked me to wait a few minutes while he finished greeting folks, so I stepped out onto the church's large concrete porch in the autumn warmth.

A tall, well-presented young man was standing just behind and to Dalton's left on the porch. The young man immediately greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile and introduced himself as George. He was clean-shaven, had a conservative but attractive haircut under a navy blue ball cap, and flashed a set of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. He was impressive. I guessed he was in his early 20s.

We exchanged polite small talk as people continued to file out of the church. Because I am new to this church and still haven't met many people, I asked George if he attended there regularly.

"No sir," he responded earnestly. "Actually, I'm homeless and I was waiting right over there for the bus, but I needed to use the bathroom so I came into the church."

I tried not to look as stunned as I felt as he continued his matter-of-fact description of his day so far:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dreams do come true

I bought a bottle of wine in Paris 10 years ago, and decided not to open it until the day I went to work for the Carter Center. Today was that day.
The Carter Center last week retained me as a freelance (aka contract) writer-copy editor. Anyone who knows me well knows this is the culmination of a long-held dream. Working with the Carter Center was the hidden agenda of my move to Georgia in 2006.

I am so grateful to God for working this out, and to the many of you who supported me and my dream over the years through your prayers and encouragement.

My first article for the center was published on its blog today. (If you wish to read it in the context of the blog, click on the headline. That would be good for traffic too. Just saying.)

Carter Center Pursues Lasting Peace in the Sudans

The geographic lines dividing Sudan and South Sudan “are completely blurry, so we focus on the lines that connect us,” Professor Jok Madut Jok, undersecretary in South Sudan’s Ministry of Culture, said during a “Conversations at The Carter Center” on October 15.

Disputes over borders, an oil pipeline and access to resources persist in Sudan and South Sudan, which separated into distinct republics in 2011 after decades of civil war. But The Carter Center, which helped broker the 2005 peace agreement, has never stopped guiding the parties toward harmonious coexistence.

At the October 15 event, Jok and the Republic of Sudan’s Ambassador Nureldin Satti sat side by side, often calling one another “brother.”

Sudan is “a rainbow nation, a microcosm of Africa,” Satti said. The civil war and subsequent division was “a failure,” he said, but “Sudan is one people in two countries. … We belong to each other.”