The Sacrifice of a Signature

They were, as a whole, a most unusual assortment of individuals.  For what they did on that day long ago was not potentially dangerous, as we sometimes remember, but several of them actually paid the price for their boldness, as well.

Nine of them, for instance, died of wounds or hardships suffered during the long and bloody conflict with the enemy.  Another five were captured or imprisoned, a fate almost worse than death because of the brutality which they then endured.  The houses of twelve men were burned to the ground, and seventeen lost everything that they owned.

What was surely the hardest of all to take, however, was that the retribution for their actions fell not just upon themselves, but upon the ones whom they loved.  For the wives, sons, and daughters of several were killed, jailed, mistreated, persecuted, or left penniless. One was even driven from his wife’s deathbed and subsequently suffered the greatest pain of all, the loss of all of his children.

And all of it was simply because each of them signed their names to a piece of paper.  A paper which dared to not only challenge the mightiest empire in the world at the time, but to question the fundamental convictions about how a society is structured, as well.  For the declaration which they made spoke of higher ideals and greater loyalties than subjugation to any earthly king or power:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

Those who signed that proclamation were thus branded as traitors and everyone of them was hunted.  Their enemies even tried to bribe them back, offering immunity, freedom, rewards, property, and their lives to break their pledged oaths and take the King’s protection.

But the amazing truth is that even in the darkest hours, not a single one of those who signed the American Declaration of Independence defected or changed their stand.  Instead, they chose to forfeit their fortunes and their futures, but never their honor or the cause in which they believed– freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

To be sure, they were not perfect men and their vision was far too narrow and even myopic when it came to the rights of minorities and women.  But they nevertheless understood that though the cost of caring for the common good may be high, it is yet worth pursuing.

Two hundred and forty-one years later,we still enjoy the fruit of their sacrifice.  As we celebrate yet another Fourth of July, perhaps it is time thus that we begin to put aside the partisanship and consider how to join together once more in the common cause that is America.

Likewise, when you sit down tomorrow at the table and say grace over all of your grilled goodies, perhaps it’s worth giving thanks to God as well for those extraordinary patriots whose signatures cost them so much in order to give us even more.





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A Dream for Methodists

Maybe it’s the futon we’ve been sleeping on in England. Or the conversation I had last night over a duck and cranberry pie with an English Methodist leader. But it crept into my mind all the same, especially after thinking about the widening impasse we seem to be facing in the United Methodist Church these days.

For if we had the chance to start afresh, I can’t help but dream that we could build the church a bit differently than it is right now. Doctrinally, for instance, I would simply update the language and context of the 25 Articles of Religion, throw in a good plank or two about prevenient grace and entire sanctification, then add the Apostles’ Creed and call it a day. (Yes, I love Wesley’s Standard Sermons–whether we count 44 or 52 of them–and would still commend them to all as excellent examples of applied theology.  But as actual statements of doctrine they have always been a bit unwieldy.)

When it came to leadership, I’d follow the example of the global south church and establish term bishops, giving them a six-year term with the possibility of re-election to one further six-year stint. Presiding elders (yes, I would change the name back from district superintendents), along with conference staff appointments, would be similarly limited to no more than three four-year terms during their career. And I’d allow for a presiding bishop to be chosen out of those who had finished their first six year term.

I’d draw annual conference lines either around standard metropolitan areas or balance them all out numerically to include somewhere between 250,000-300,000 members in each. In turn, I’d abolish all jurisdictions and have a regional or national conference that met once every three years to elect bishops and adjust the polity of each region, excluding the doctrinal and social charter sections.

That task would fall to a Global Conference which would meet once every six years for no more than a week for the primary purpose of inspiration, education, and renewing our Wesleyan ties and witness. To that group, however, would also indeed fall the responsibility of stewarding our global social compact. That statement however would be limited to only a few essential items, primarily expressing our support for the God-given human rights of all, though without compromising our bedrock belief that God’s best answers to the problems of the world are to be found in Jesus.

That charter would accordingly call upon governments to respect all of their citizens, as well as the created order which God has given us to treat as stewards. It would commend the biblical understandings of life which begins at conception, the covenant of marriage as the mutual submission and selfless service between one man and one woman, and holiness of heart and habits that glorifies God in all that we do, including the mandate to love all. 

Beyond that, it would say nothing about human sexuality in its varied expressions, nor would it endorse any particular governmental or economic system, other than to decry oppressive conditions that may diminish life in its intended fullness. Resolutions dealing with specific concerns could still be proposed at the regional conferences but each one, if adopted, would only have a shelf life of three years unless adopted again at the next conference.

There would be only four general boards, dealing with education (including our schools and seminaries), discipleship (including evangelism, men and women’s ministries, youth programs and bible studies), witness and outreach (including missions, health, and social concerns) and stewardship (including oversight of the pensions and general church’s budget).

That too would be simpler, however, as the shared giving program would be set as a tithe of local church receipts, with half going to the general church and half going directly to projects or programs beyond themselves as determined by each congregation.

And all of this I might call simply The Methodist Christian Church, for it is, after all, His church and not ours, whether we are genuinely “united” or not.  We’d be bound not by property trust clauses, but by trust in Christ alone. And if anyone wanted to join, we’d simply ask them, “Is your heart with mine? Then give me your hand.”

Of course it is just a dream and it no doubt overlooks many aspects of what it means to be both a faithful and fruitful church. On the other hand, if the alternative is the nightmare that we continue to be falling into as a denomination, that dream might be worth pursuing even in the light of day.

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A Bridge Back to God

It’s called the Bridge of Strings and when it opened in Jerusalem in 2008, like so many other things in that city, it was controversial, criticized as too extravagant by some, and as out of its element by others as it welcomes visitors who come to that ancient city from the north.
Designed by the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the bridge is marked by a 119-meter high mast with 66 steel cables arranged in a parabolic shape, resembling both a tent in the desert and a harp. But Calatrava also was influenced by what he said is the Latin origin of the word “religious,” stemming from re-ligare, meaning “to create a link.” Fittingly, thus, the light rail line that travels across the bridge connects both parts of that contentious city, winding through both Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

On that first Palm Sunday, however, Jesus entered into this city from the east but also found it divided. For the acclaim of many was matched by criticism from others, leading before the week had ended to His public execution on the cross. Yet it was through His death that Jesus indeed created a bridge back to God for us all, for any, in fact, “who received him and believed in His name.”

For in the end, if the rocks were ready to cry out, even the loudest critics couldn’t silence His voice. And the good news is, they still can’t.

(The preceding was published by the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church as a part of its Lenten devotional series based on public art. To view this online or to read other devotionals in the series, please go to reflection.)

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Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Feed Me?

I was just fourteen when the song came out, but according to the story, Paul actually wrote it many years earlier when he was only sixteen himself. He forgot all about it until his own father’s special birthday nine years later, however, and even then, his partner John was not exactly a fan of the tune, saying in an interview some years afterwards, “I would never even dream of writing a song like that.”

To be sure, the almost vaudevillian melody was a little out of sync with the rest of their music, and the clarinet trio featured in the song was not exactly standard instrumentation for the group. On the other hand, whenever the amplifiers failed or the power went off, it did make a nice filler for the boys to sing.

Still, when it first appeared on the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney’s sentimental siren “When I’m Sixty-Four,” became an enormous hit. For there was something sweet indeed about the idea that though life won’t always be easy (“we shall scrimp and save”) in the end, it can be worth it when we can one day simply work in the garden and play with grandchildren, even if their names aren’t Vera, Chuck, and Dave.

Of course, I’m afraid that I lost much of my own hair years ago, and unfortunately, when my formerly long locks left the premises they seemed to take a lot of brain cells with them. And today, I’m not even sure that I could stay out until quarter of three if I wanted to do so.

But having just turned sixty-four at 12:01 this morning, I’m happy at least that my dear wife not only has never locked the door on me but that she still feeds me and even seems to need me, just as I do her. And there’s something incredibly nice about going through life with a person who not only knows you well, but has loved you long.

It’s said that when Paul McCartney turned 64 himself eleven years ago that his own children made a special recording of this song at Abbey Road Studios and presented it to him as a surprise present. But I have a feeling that he wasn’t really all that surprised at all. After all, he had forty-eight years to get ready for it.

And how good it is when “sincerely ” or not, we don’t simply “waste away” the years but we treasure them all as a wonderful gift from God. For to quote Sir Paul, who really could ask for more?







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A Legacy of Love (Revisited)

No one seems to know exactly who he was but the stories abound. Some early church records list a number of martyrs by the name, but whether he was one of them we cannot say for certain. Still, it’s probable that he was a leader of the early church who lived in the third century after Christ, a time when accepting the Christian faith was almost always dangerous and sometimes even deadly.

One account tells us that he was a Roman pastor who had a special feeling for young folks. When the Roman Empire needed soldiers, the Emperor Claudius II decreed that no one could become engaged, believing that married men would want to stay home more than go off and fight wars! (Smart fellow, that Claudius, wasn’t he?) The kindly priest defied the emperor’s orders, however, and began to secretly marry a number of young couples. And the consequence was predictable: he was eventually arrested, imprisoned, and later put to death for his “crime” of aiding amour.

Another legend suggests that this same priest was seized for helping Christians who were being persecuted by Claudius and that during his imprisonment, the jailor and his family were so impressed by his sincerity and even joy that they became believers themselves. The priest was especially kind to the jailor’s blind daughter and, following the leading of God, he prayed for her to receive her sight. When the miracle occurred, he is said to have sent her a farewell message signed simply with his name, “From your Valentine.”

Of course, they are all just legends. But perhaps in a time like ours when there is so much counterfeit compassion and non-sacrificial sentiments, such legends can remind us of an eternal principle about life: only love that costs you something is worth giving away to another. Or as Jesus Himself once expressed it, “greater love has no one that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13)

He may never have seen a foil wrapped heart and he could little have imagined what would later be done in his name each year on a day like this one. But if the stories are true, it appears that the priest now known as St. Valentine understood those words of his master and so he tried, in turn, to show in his own life what true love is really all about.

When you open up that box of candy today, or give someone that silly card, why not take a moment to stop and remember a truth more lovely than any other: when it comes to true affection, even Hallmark can’t come close to those who are following the Lord and remembering His “new commandment,” that we love one another even as He has loved us.

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Happy Hogmanay

No doubt many folks will sing his words tonight without the foggiest notion of either the author’s story or even what the words themselves may mean. For most of us probably can’t get past the first line before we resort to mumbling the rest of the song until we roar back in with gusto on the closing three words, though not really knowing what they mean either.

Still, it’s become a tradition all over the world, from Russia to the Americas and particularly, of course, in the author’s homeland of Scotland. For it is there on the last day of the year, also known as Hogmanay, that friends will stand in a circle holding hands, crossing them on the last verse so that their left hand is holding the hand of the person on their right, and their right hand holds that of the person on their left. And when the song ends, everyone will rush to the middle of the circle, still holding hands, but more than likely laughing as they do so.

After all, if you really have run about the braes and pu’d the gowans fine (run about the hills and pulled the daisies fine), to say nothing of paidl’d i’ the burn frae mornin’ sun till dine (paddled in the stream from morning sun till dine), then it’s only appropriate to grasp the hand of a trusty fiere or friend and then tak a right guild willy waught (take a deep draught of good-will) for auld lang syne, or long, long ago.

For when the Ploughman Poet and Bard of Ayrshire, Robert Burns, first sent his poem to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788, he no doubt understood that there is something rabbie-burnswonderfully winsome for everyone about preserving old friendships and looking back over the events of the past year that strikes a familiar chord in us all.

Indeed, Burns himself knew all about treasuring what has transpired in our lives while also knowing how to move past the past. The eldest of seven children of a tenant farmer, Burns’ only real schooling as a child was that which his father provided. His own prospects for the future were thus rather doubtful, leading him to accept the position of becoming a bookkeeper for a slave plantation in Jamaica, despite his abolitionist views.

He first had to raise his own passage to the West Indies, however, and so he began to write lyrical poems and songs, culling from old Scottish folk melodies and giving them new life. Just before leaving his homeland, however, when he had already, in his words “taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest on the road to Greenock…and [having] composed
the last song I should ever measure in Scotland,” an encouraging letter from a friend arrived, overthrowing all his schemes by opening up new prospects for his poetic ambitions.

Burns instead borrowed a pony and went back to Edinburgh to compose a second edition of his works, eventually becoming not only the national poet of Scotland, but even beating out William Wallace in a public vote to be declared “The Greatest Scot” of all time.

All of which is why though he died at the young age of only 37, the “immortal memory” of Rabbie Burns yet lives on two and half centuries later, not just in Scotland but around the globe.  For “old acquaintance” may indeed be forgot but the power of nostalgia is real indeed.

Should you sing those words tonight, thus, perhaps you can “take a cup of kindness yet” in his memory (un-spiked egg nog will work just fine for Methodists) and then share that pint-stowp of caring with another.

Just for “old times’ sake,” of course.


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ad • ventus’

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18.8)

As advent dawns, another year

Both full of hope and full of fear

Slips forth and fills our atmosphere.

                          But we are yet still waiting.

For though He came once long ago

So that salvation we might know

We have not let His Spirit grow

                       And so we are still waiting.

We’ve been affected by the Fall,

We have not heard His simple call

To share His love and peace with all,

                      Instead we are still waiting.

Indeed, we have not turned the tide

By all the efforts we have tried,

The door must open from outside,

                    And so we are still waiting.

Yet He will come again one day

When men and angels both shall say

He is the Truth, the Life, the Way,

                   And He can end our waiting.

And so for now, we watch and pray

And try to follow and obey

Until we welcome Him and say,

                “Come, Jesus, we’ve been waiting.”

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