Healing Scars

The older I get the more scars I have! Scars from multiple medical procedures add to those lingering from childhood scrapes. Some are more visible and pronounced than others. The scar on my chest from by-pass surgery reminds me that there is also an unseen scar on the heart itself.

Then, there are the less visible scars resulting from wounds to the psyche. Those blemishes lurk inside and surface in our behaviors and moods. Anger, guilt, grief, even violence often are outward signs of hidden scars.

To be human is to be scarred! Our scars tell our stories. Each mark reveals an event. Frequently, the story is one of loss and grief. A cancerous growth removed. Surgery to repair a diseased organ or fractured bone. An accident or fall. Maybe a battle wound, an act of violence.

The Apostle Thomas fixated on Jesus’s scars/wounds. Unless the wounds were visible, he could not believe the resurrection. Apart from Jesus’ scars, we miss a central meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection.

The  visible wounds represent more than empirical evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead.

The request to see the “mark of the nails” expresses Thomas’ profound theological longing. He wants assurance that the Resurrected Christ is the Crucified Jesus.

No phantom Jesus who only pretended to suffer can be the Savior! Only a wounded and scarred Jesus can save a blemished and scarred humanity!

Jesus’ scars declare the profound message that God is in solidarity with humanity’s wounds. Our wounds are seen, understood, accepted, and healed! God takes on our wounds and redeems them!

“By his stripes (scars) we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ scars tell the story of forgiveness, reconciliation, love, justice, hospitality, and peace.

Scars themselves indicate healing. The open wound has closed, the malignant cells removed, the broken bone mended, the diseased organ healed.

Jesus’ scars proclaim:

  • Our wounds are shared, understood, accepted, healed
  • Forgiveness heals vengeance
  • Love cures hate
  • Integrity counters political and religious expediency
  • Justice prevails over exploitation and oppression
  • Courage triumphs over apathy and conformity
  • Hospitality rectifies exclusion
  • Peace reigns over war and violence.

My friend, Dale Sessions, assists with worship at Bethany, the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman. He bears two clearly visible scars on his head.Dale outside

Dale was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Both his father and his brother died of the dreaded disease.

Wanting to contribute to research, Dale voluntarily entered a trial program at Emory University. Two holes were drilled into his skull, leaving sizable scars.

When we serve Communion together, Dale holds the cup. As he bends toward each seated participant, his scars are plainly visible. Those scars have come to symbolize his courage in the pursuit a cure for Alzheimer’s . But they also are visible signs of self-giving love on behalf of others, a fitting reminder of the Sacrament itself.

Dale at Bethany

Another friend’s face is badly scarred from a wound inflicted by racists in the 1960s. He put his body on the line on behalf of racial and economic justice. Some might refer to his scarred face as “ugly.” To the contrary, the scar beautifully tells the story of courage on behalf of compassion, justice, and inclusion.

I’m glad Thomas asked to see Jesus’ wounds/scars. Those scars testify to compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, hospitality, and peace–SALVATION!

Perhaps Jesus asks to see our scars of healing in this wounded and flawed world!

 

“Betrayed with a Kiss and a Sword”

Jesus asked the piercing question of the disciple-turned-conspirator: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:48)

Why a kiss? Would not a slap or pointed finger or clinched fist be more appropriate means of betraying Jesus into the hands of his opponents? But, no! Judas betrayed with a sign of affection!

Upon closer reflection, however, Jesus’ question is appropriate for all who claim allegiance to him. We rarely, if ever, hear expressed outright hatred or denunciation of Jesus. Yet, we all betray!

Most often our betrayal takes the form of declared affection for Jesus. Here are a few ways we betray Jesus with a kiss:

  • Singing “O How I Love Jesus” while hating those who are different
  • Declaring “Jesus Is Lord” while prioritizing partisan politics above the common good
  • Claiming Jesus’ forgiveness but holding grudges and seeking vengeance
  • Affirming love for God while despising neighbors near and far
  • Singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World” while failing to provide all children with access to education, medical care, safety and love
  • Proclaiming “God is Love” with anger in our voices and hate in our actions
  • Honoring him with our lips while our lives are far from him
  • Saying “Lord, Lord” and failing to do what he says, go where he goes, and welcome those whom he loves

Judas resides in all of us!  We, too, betray with a kiss!

But Judas wasn’t the only disloyal disciple present in the garden when Jesus was arrested. Luke tells us, “One of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear”(22:50).

Jesus responded resolutely, “No more of this!”

The kiss and the sword have much in common as forms of betrayal. History is replete with efforts to violently defend Jesus.

The Crusades were fought in name of loyalty to Jesus. Scientists were burned at the stake under the guise of protecting religious doctrine. Preachers used the Bible to promote slavery! Klansmen terrorized and murdered with burning crosses and prayers of devotion to Jesus. The Bible has been used as a sword of discrimination against women.

Defending Jesus with physical, verbal, and emotional swords is a pervasive means of betrayal. Could these be subtle contemporary examples of betrayal with swords?

  • Using Scripture as a weapon for exclusion, hatred, and discrimination
  • Promoting hatred of Muslims, immigrants, gays, and others in the name of defending the Christian faith
  • Applauding the Sermon on the Mount while defending possession of assault weapons as a “God-given right”
  • Proclaiming God’s preferential presence in “the least of these” while advocating public policies that damage the poor, vulnerable, and powerless
  • Increasing spending for weapons of war while decreasing support for education, healthcare, housing, and food for the under resourced

But the final word in the Christian gospel isn’t betrayal! It’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In Matthew’s account of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus calls him “friend.” Judas’ kiss may have been betrayal, but Jesus’ response was one of steadfast love.

After admonishing the disciples against violence, Jesus healed the victim. The final word was/is healing, not violence.

From the cross, Jesus spoke the ultimate response to all forms of betrayal: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Whether betrayed with a kiss or a sword, Jesus forgives, reconciles, transforms.

Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, and a Baby in a Barn

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1).

Thus begins Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus!

The context is crucial for understanding what follows. Rushing too quickly to see the babe in the stable  subverts the story’s radical message.

Bound up in those first two sentences of Luke’s nativity is the key to knowing what God is up to in the coming of Jesus.

Make no mistake about it!  God is challenging the prevailing values and practices of Caesar and his surrogates! God confronts the mighty Roman Empire, and all subsequent empires, with a vulnerable baby, born of a peasant teenager in a cattle barn in tiny village tucked away in darkness.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are very much alive and active in today’s world. They represent prevailing political and economic power. They have the authority, the might to force populations to do as they say. They are in charge and they intend to maintain their control, their privilege.

So, they issue executive orders that all citizens be “registered,” have proper ID, be legal! Sound familiar?

The registration is part of a new tax policy, designed to protect the economic privilege and advantage of those in power. That sounds strangely and frighteningly familiar in light of the new tax plan enacted into law, clearly enhancing the privileges of the privileged at the expense of the working class and poor.

Both the registration and the tax policy of Augustus and Quirinius strengthen control by the Roman Empire. The day laborers, such as Joseph, and the peasant girls such as Mary, have no power but to acquiesce to the powers that be.

It sounds contemporary in light of political gerrymandering and the wedding of political influence and money which renders common voters powerless.

Mary and Joseph are made homeless, so they take shelter in a barn. There, Mary gives birth without medical attention or a sterile environment. Women often suffer the brunt of abuses of power by the Caesars of every generation.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, mighty Herod is so insecure that he orders all male babies under two slaughtered in order to preserve his power. Baby Jesus becomes an immigrant, fleeing a tyrant’s violence. Children continue to be the major victims of despots’ efforts to secure power!

But the Christmas Story is about redefining power. The world still defines power as the clout of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Power is the ability to issue decrees, executive orders, pass legislation, dictate taxation and economic policies. Make no mistake about it! That is a form of power, and the exercise of it is fraught with abuse and accompanying suffering.

There is, however, another form of power. It is more lasting and transformative than political clout and economic privilege.

Authentic power is embodied in that babe in Bethlehem’s manger. It is the power of self-giving Love! Such love comes silently, without fanfare, hidden in simple gestures of compassion and gentleness amid cruelty and callousness.

We can align with the power in Bethlehem’s stable by entering into solidarity with today’s

-homeless seeking shelter from the winter cold,

-vulnerable women and men without medical care,

-immigrants hiding in the shadows while fleeing cruelty of tyrants,

-working poor who care for our children and frail elderly for meager pay.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius may steal the headlines. The future, however, belongs to that babe in Bethlehem’s barn! There is real Power. There is God!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In All Things Give Thanks! Really?

“In all things give thanks!” That sounds like superficial pious nonsense, a sugary platitude spoken by an armchair philosopher or prosperity gospel preacher surrounded by gilded opulence.  Who would dare offer such advice to a world filled with suffering, conflict, evil, violence, poverty, and death?

Before we dismiss the counsel, we best listen to the author’s description of his life’s experiences:

“Five times I have received. . . the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27).

While he was languishing in prison, waiting execution, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians  4: 4).

So, we can’t dismiss the Apostle Paul’s advice as some Pollyanna denial of reality or escape into a fantasy world of contrived positive thinking or feigned faith. He knew something we desperately need to know!

We all know hardships and struggles. Sometimes life’s suffering and anguish overwhelms us. For many, loss and grief are constant companions and tears frequently flow uncontrollably.

We live in troubled times: lost public decency and civility, hateful political warfare, desdaain for people who are different, mistrust of institutions, widespread shameless deception and crudeness, violence and threats of violence, needless poverty and injustice.

It is hard to hear someone admonish us to “in all things give thanks”.  Perhaps, though, we need to learn some of the Apostle’s secret.

Paul doesn’t say that we are to be thankful for all things! He wasn’t giving thanks for shipwrecks, persecution, violence, suffering, hunger and poverty, dangers, and his own imprisonment and future execution.

He said in all things give thanks! The preposition makes a significant difference. Paul was convinced that within all circumstances there is potential good for which gratitude is an appropriate response.

The Apostle’s advice is grounded in his faith. The core of that faith is expressed in these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

There is more at work in our circumstances than meets the eye. God, whose very being is Love, is working with us to bring some good from whatever befalls us and the world. He was adamant that nothing in all creation, in life or in death, could separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:18-19).

I can’t comprehend the mess the world’s in today. Things are happening that I thought impossible only a few years ago, especially in the realm of politics, public policies, popular discourse, personal behavior.

What possible good can emerge?  What is good is God working to bring? Maybe the failure of our politics and policies, the collapse of civility, and the exposure of personal immorality will point us toward God’s vision of a new creation. It is a world of compassion, justice, integrity, generosity, hospitality, and peace.

Neither can I explain the personal suffering, grief, and tragedies which encompass so many lives.  I do know that from my own experience that love outlasts everything, that what the brain forgets, the heart remembers.

I know that when all seems to be lost there comes an unexpected and fleeting smile, or a moment of recognition, or a squeeze of the hand, or a passing glimmer in the eyes. And, just when I feel all alone, a note arrives or the phone rings or a knock is heard at the door.

Yes, I am learning that it is possible to “in all things give thanks”!

In All Things God Is at Work for Good

A young student in seminary preached a sermon on Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”(NRSV).

He waxed eloquently on how all our circumstances are God’s gifts; and, though we don’t understand, God has a reason for those circumstances and events. He made a compelling case for the sovereignty of God and the importance of simple trust.

The professor wasn’t impressed! “You may not have lived long enough to preach on that text,” Dr. Ferguson commented.

“I’m not sure you have suffered enough to proclaim with authenticity what Paul is saying,” he added.

“The man who wrote that endured shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, rejection, and eventual execution,” the professor went on to say.

Then, he asked, “Are you saying to him, ‘just suck it up. God had it all planned for your good? Or, is Paul inviting us to join God’s efforts to bring good from bad circumstances?”

On July 5, 2002, Dr. Ferguson’s critique and my interpretation of Romans 8:28 were put to the test.

In May 2002 I underwent triple by-pass surgery to avoid a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in the heart (the “widow maker”). The surgeon said that I should be back to full speed in ten to twelve weeks.

After a month of cardiac rehab, the cardiologist released me to travel to Lake Junaluska for further recuperation.

All was going well until the morning of July 5. I suddenly developed chest pains. I was having a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The cardiologist tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the blockage in the LAD. He then proceeded to put a stint in another area which relieved the pain.

I had survived the collapse of “the widow maker,” but the extent of the damage to the heart awaited further evaluation. It was an uncertain time, with the preferred future now in serious doubt.

After several tests, the results were in. Significant damage had been done to the heart muscle. A six month leave from my duties as the bishop in Mississippi followed. Those months were filled with lament, uncertainty, questioning, grief, searching, and discernment.

Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? Will I be disabled? Will I continue to have heart attacks and die? If I can’t continue in the position to which the church has called me, what will I do? Where is God in all this?

I never assumed that God caused or willed my heart attack, though I admit to some anger toward God for not preventing it! What is God’s will in these circumstances? What good can possibly come from my now damaged heart?

During the subsequent months of prayer, conversation with family, friends, and doctors, it became apparent that continuing beyond the quadrennium as an active bishop was untenable. But what will I do?

Thanks to Greg Jones, a friend and Dean of Duke Divinity School, a new door was opened. I was invited to be considered for a faculty position at Duke. Then came eight of the most fulfilling years of my life and ministry!

In 2009 came another life-changing blow! Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, a progressive neuro-cognitive disease which would gradually rob her of independence and normal capacities. What were we to do?

Again, lament and discernment moved to the forefront and another vocational change was in order. I relinquished my cherished faculty position. We moved near our daughters and I became caregiver to my beloved wife and partner.

Where was God now? How can I fulfill my calling as an ordained clergy while being a care partner for Linda? One way was to be the best care partner possible. That meant learning as much as possible about her disease. Also, I was invited to teach part time at the Lutheran Seminary. Then, I was asked to be the chaplain in the memory care unit in the retirement community. A couple of friends and I developed a course entitled “Dementia through a Pastoral Theological Lens.”

The last seven years have been an intense period of growing in love, patience, and compassion for those with dementia and their families. Joy has deepened. Love has matured.  The circle of relationships has been expanded to include more of the forgotten people. Trust in God has grown. Deep friendships have been formed.

Furthermore, I have been able to be with children and grandchildren in ways that would have been impossible had Linda’s disease not motivated us to move near them. Grace abounds! Life is good!

I now have a better understanding of Romans 8:28, “In all things, God is at work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And, Dr. Ferguson’s comments now make more sense!