Muddling Through to the Manger


Now just in case you’ve haven’t seen that movie lately on Netflex or Hulu, it’s a pretty simple plot, for it’s about a family from St. Louis which is about to move to New York City for the father’s job promotion.  But they’re leaving St. Louis just before the long-anticipated World’s Fair of 1904, and everybody is upset about it, especially the five-year old daughter of that family, Tootie.  (Not the same Tootie that was on The Facts of Life, by the waythat came about forty years later!)  And so to cheer her up, her big sister Esther played by Judy Garland sings her this song on Christmas Eve.

The original lyrics written by Hugh Martin were rejected as too depressing, however, for they went something like,  “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/it may be your last/next year we may all be living in the past/Have yourself a merry little Christmas/pop that champagne cork/Next year we may all be living in New York.”  And I suppose for a lot of folks that would be a kind of depressing notion.  So Martin changed the words about it being that’s family last Christmas before living in the past to “let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”  Which was better, and certainly more realistic than the wildly optimistic modern assertion that the song now suggests–“from now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

But then there were other problems with the song, as well.  Because when Frank Sinatra sang it 13 years later, he complained to Hugh Martin that the name of his album was A Jolly Christmas, and so could Martin please jolly up the line that originally said “in a year we all will be together if the Fates allow, until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.”  Yeah, who wants to just muddle through Christmas– that doesn’t sound very merry at all!  So Martin changed it again so that Old Blue Eyes could sing instead “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

But, you see, sometimes the truth is that we do have to muddle through to the manger somehow, for the holidays can get pretty frenetic, can’t they?  So sometimes we simply need to put one foot in front of another one, do what needs to be done, deal with whatever comes up, and start over when we have to.  Someone has noted that this is part of the wisdom of twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous– they don’t focus on lifetime solutions, they don’t promise that things will be great “from now on” forever and ever–no, they talk about daily victories–staying sober one day at a time.

Which is perhaps why when James Taylor–himself no stranger to difficult personal circumstances–put out his recording of the old holiday classic with the original “muddling” words that he wrote a note to the radio stations to accompany it which said, “It’s a sweet simple message–just get through the hard times and there will be better days ahead.”

And that’s the message of Christmas that this season points us towards.  For the truth is, none of us have perfect lives or perfect circumstances in our lives.  Some of us  struggle with the same kind of demons that James Taylor has–with depression and substance abuse.  And some are fighting disease either in their own bodies, or in those of people whom they love.  Others are worried about their finances, and boy does Christmas put a strain in that area for a lot of people.  (After all, why do you think they call it Black Friday?) And still others are just plain burned out because life has come at them hard and they’ve been just a little–or a lot–beaten down by it.

What Advent reminds us of, however, is that there is indeed something–indeed Someone–coming into this world that can change everything.  We just have to wait until that Someone gets here.  That’s why St. Paul writing to the church in Galatia told them that as children of this earth, we’ve all been enslaved to the basic principles of the world.  But when the “fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship,” with all of the legal rights which that term implied in Roman culture.

Or to put it another way, until Christ, we were all just muddling through life, but now, there’s a new possibility for every one of us.  We just have to learn how to wait upon the Lord sometimes, for that is when we shall indeed renew our strength.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison camp, that once observed that “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes– and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside— is not a bad picture of Advent.” And then he went on to say that “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”

So until then when it comes to the tough parts of life we may indeed just have to muddle through somehow. But again, not as those who have no hope,  for you and I  know–just as Bonhoeffer likewise understood so long ago–that change is coming. And that’s what makes Advent so exciting, I think, for it is an annual reminder of the fact that when the world was at its very darkest, God sent His light into it.  Which means as well that we can trust God with whatever may come our way, even if it’s an unexpected change of our circumstances.

Indeed, that’s really what Hugh Martin wanted to say in his muddling little song about a merry little Christmas. For the original words which Martin penned never said anything about the Fates controlling the events of our lives, as though what happens to us depends upon some impersonal force that does not know us.  Rather, in the original version that was changed for the movie, Martin said, “Through the years we all will be together if the Lord allows.” And in 2001, at the age of 86, Hugh Martin finally got the chance to change those lyrics back, writing an entirely new version of his classic entitled, “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.”

In short, the door of freedom really is about to swing open from the outside. Blessed indeed are all those who are ready to be free.

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A Prayer for El Paso and Dayton

(Several have asked for a copy of the prayer I gave this morning at Christ Church following the tragic shootings on Saturday in El Paso and Dayton.  As I post it below I pray that all may find peace in these days as we walk through this seemingly endless valley of the shadow of death, waiting for the return of the One who can finally set it all right.)

“Dear God, once again we have seen the face of evil in the taking of so many innocent lives yesterday in El Paso and Dayton, and as people of faith, it seems to strike close to home indeed.  We confess that we do not understand the brokenness of this world, or the brokenness in the lives of others that allows them to channel such rage and hatred to people whom they do not even know.  Our hearts weigh heavy for the families of those whose lives were lost, and for those whose lives hang still in the balance as they are tended to by doctors and nurses so far away.

And so, as we have done far too often in recent times, we simply stop once more and we join in the ancient prayer of your people, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleisonLord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy.  Like a desperate father so long ago cried out to you, Jesus, saying “Lord, come down, my son is ill,” so we cry this morning, “Lord, come down, our world is ill, wracked with bloodshed and violence the live-long day.  We are sick, but You can make us well, if You but say, if You but say.”  For all this we ask on this day, praying that all will know even in the midst of great loss Your peace that truly can surpass all that we can understand and even all that we don’t, Amen.”

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A Lunar Lord’s Supper

I was only a teenager at the time, but growing up in Houston with a father in the news business, I felt a special connection to NASA from early on, even getting the chance to sit once or twice in the temporary broadcast booths that were constructed for the network anchors back when every launch was a media event.  And so, like millions around the world, I was totally transfixed on the black and white television images that miraculously came wafting into our living room on July 20, 1969, from more than a quarter million miles away.

What I didn’t know at the time, however, was what else happened on that Sunday five decades ago when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to ever walk on another world.  For even as he prepared for that historic “giant leap for mankind,” his companion, Buzz Aldrin, prepared for something else inside the Eagle, unpacking bread and wine from plastic containers and placing them on the abort guidance system computer.

Radioing back to earth, he invited everyone listening in “whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”  And then, switching his radio off, Aldrin read privately from the Gospel of John before pouring the wine into a chalice, where in the lessened gravity of the moon the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” and he followed that by taking communion.  In short, as Aldrin later wrote in a Guideposts magazine article, “the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

My friend Charles Anderson, who has served as a Methodist pastor to many in the NASA community over the years, has eloquently put it this way:  “How both poignant and appropriate, that the greatest technological achievement in human history carried within it the sacramental reminder of the greatest act of salvific love in all history–namely, the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ that binds the past to the present, and the heavens to the earth. The greatest distance that humans have ever traveled from our celestial home was still within reach of the promise and presence of the living God.”  Or as Charles goes on to add, “we can never ever journey to a place so far where God is not.”

And fifty years later, we’ve still never been able to do so, even with a Saturn V rocket behind us. Maybe that’s why when Jesus gave us the sacrament, He told us to remember Him in this way whenever we can. And wherever too, we might add.

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2,248 MILES

I could have walked from Atlanta to Los Angeles by now, or to put it on a more global scale, almost halfway across Russia from east to west, or the same distance across Africa from north to south.  For today marks exactly one year since I began my streak of walking at least five miles a day, and more recently, seven or eight.

It’s been an interesting experiment, to be sure.  For a little like those postal carriers of old who let neither “snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” stay them from “their appointed rounds,” over the past twelve month, I’ve walked primarily outdoors, too, only substituting hotel or gym treadmills when necessary.  My faithful co-trekker for much of it has been my wife, but other times I’ve walked alone, giving me lots of chances to ponder and pray, an occupational hazard for any preacher who, given the time, will quite naturally come up with several points and maybe even a poem or so.

I’ve discovered anew, for instance, the power of habit.  For even though I never really intended to go for 365 days in a row, what began as much smaller goals– a week, a month, 50 days, 100 days–soon turned into more extensive ones.  And to be honest, the only thing that actually got me up and out there at six in the morning some days was simply the streak itself, and my obsessive-compulsive fear that if I broke it, I would never go this long again.

Likewise, I also figured out that the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was right about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, or as his famous proverb more correctly is translated, it begins “beneath one’s feet.”  For had anyone suggested to me last July that I would make a 4,418,130 step journey on foot, I would have simply laughed, forgetting that all great things do indeed start from humble beginnings.

Through it all, however, my fitness tracker has been absolutely unbending when it comes to resetting the count all over again every 24 hours at midnight.  For to keep the streak going, daily goals required daily responses, and try as I may, I could never figure out how to bank any extra miles from one day to the next.

And all of this would also seem to be true in the spiritual life.  For it is the holy habits we develop (such as prayer, scripture reading, and worship) that slowly but surely change the other facets of our lives as well. Similarly, every good work we might ask God to do in us always begins beneath our own feet, as we step out in faith to respond to His winsome call to “Follow Me.”

What’s more, that journey of discipleship is indeed a daily one, aptly expressed in the Hebrew word halak.  For though our salvation may have been secured in the past, it is always worked out in the present to those who are “being saved.” (1 Corinthians 1.18)  And in the end, it’s not just about imitation, but about intimacy with God as well.  For at numerous points in the Bible we are told that individuals such as Abraham and Enoch “walked with God,” hand-in-hand as friends with their Creator too.

Of course, someone might also point out that having expended an extra 316,667 calories over the last year that I should actually have lost ninety pounds.  But then that really wasn’t the point of it all.  For in the end, most journeys, including spiritual ones, are not really about what you lose, but about what you gain.

And as Year Two begins, I plan to be back out there again tomorrow morning.  After all, I still have to go at least another 1500 miles or so just to get home from California.

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Fun With Math

He attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli, but you won’t actually find it in any of his works. But in speaking to the power of numbers to bolster an otherwise weak argument, Mark Twain was probably correct to say that there are three kinds of untruths:  “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” And in that sense, some of my colleagues are perhaps not exactly correct in suggesting that 76% of American Methodists are against the traditional understanding of human sexuality outlined in our Book of Discipline.

It’s true that three-quarters of the annual conferences across the United States voted for a majority progressive delegation to the upcoming General Conference in 2020, and likewise more than half passed resolutions in opposition to what is no longer the Traditional Plan but is now actually the reaffirmed law of the church. But that doesn’t really tell the full story.

The Texas Conference, for example, like many across the country, pretty much split the house, electing a largely progressive/centrist delegation on the clergy side, and a wholly traditionalist delegation on the lay side.  But though eight of the nine clergy chosen were on a progressive/centrist voting list (that’s 88% if you are keeping track), because everyone elected must receive at least fifty percent of the ballots plus one, it’s a little like the winner take all Electoral College.  For look at the numbers more carefully and you will find that the progressive majority was actually only about 53% or so, roughly the same percentages as in neighboring Louisiana as well.

In Florida, the progressive margins were slightly higher at around 57 percent but again, because of the system, the clergy delegation elected was 100% progressive, and there were similar results in South Carolina and Georgia.  In West Ohio, there was also a stronger preference for progressive clergy candidates, some 64%, but even there, the 35% traditional pastors were not represented in the 100% progressive delegation.  And in Indiana, the difference between progressive and traditional clergy was only forty to fifty (or 7%) out of the 700 votes that were cast.

On the other hand, I suspect that the progressive clergy in Western Pennsylvania will not really feel represented by the traditional delegation that dominated their elections, just as I know that my progressive friends in Texas felt left out when the traditionalists swept the vote here in prior cycles.  Even this time, the same would be true for progressive laity in places like Texas where, as noted above, the entire slate on that side of the house will reflect a traditional majority.

The point is that in a system involving multiple candidates for multiple positions each requiring a majority vote it’s simply not possible to draw conclusions as to the true mind of the whole church when it comes to controversial issues.  Likewise, suggesting that the delegates who were elected reflect the viewpoints of United Methodists in the pews is more than a little disingenuous when fully half of those who will vote next May in Minneapolis–clergy who tend to be far more progressive than laity–actually represent only 0.4% of those who comprise The United Methodist Church across the globe.  And don’t even get me started on what would appear to be a “cavalier” dismissal (to borrow a term from a colleague) of the forty plus percent of the church that lives in Africa.

In the end, it’s pretty clear thus that at least on the question of human sexuality that we United Methodists are far more closely divided than the delegate count might imply.  What is incumbent upon us a church thus is to find a way to honor those differences and create new communities of faith that can live side by side, though with enough separation to stop our long internecine warfare.  We can stay family if we like, but perhaps we’re better off calling ourselves “cousins in Christ” for the time being, rather than brothers and sisters trying to live together in the same contentious household.

Of course, there’s a 43.7% chance I could be entirely wrong about all of this.  But if so, I have no doubt but that someone will tell me so.  Of that, in fact, I’m 100% sure.

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Parachuting into Pandemonium

I can’t begin to imagine it. But for a twenty-five year young captain from Arkansas, today was one that forever changed his life.  For after having enlisting in the infantry, J.W.’s talents quickly propelled him to a leadership role.  He arrived thus in England in January 1944, becoming the unit commander and jumpmaster of his parachute company, the 501st Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne known as the “Screaming Eagles.”

It’s clear that he was well prepared thus for the spearhead mission he received some five months later. For the plan was to parachute behind enemy lines near the French town of Saint Côme-du-Mont, and then secure a bridge across the Douve River so that the Germans couldn’t blow it up before the Allies could use it.  But by the time that the pilot pushed the green jump light, the plane had already overshot the landing spot by ten kilometers.  “I saw the river pass by,” he said, “but there was nothing that I could do.”

In turn, J.W. and his men came down in an orchard occupied by enemy soldiers where in the midnight moonlight, two-thirds were shot before they could ever get out of their parachutes. And after playing cat and mouse for hours, J.W. himself was captured and became a prisoner of war.

His first task was to help load the wounded onto a German ambulance, but as he did so, he noticed that he could probably fit under the vehicle and so he quickly slipped down, held onto the frame with his hands and feet, and rode along for several miles before dropping off while the truck went slowly up a hill.  He then wandered around France for three weeks until being captured again, and accused of being a spy, had a noose fitted around his neck until a German commander intervened and he was taken instead to a camp, OFLAG 64 in Poland, becoming Prisoner 80792.

But J.W. was a tough one and managed to escape a second time, only to be recaptured when German soldiers wandered in to sleep in the same barn where he had hidden himself down in the hay.  He was smoked out and returned to camp.  Until finally, he escaped a third time, and wisely decided to head east through Poland and Russia, walking three months until he was finally able to board a British freighter and return to the Allied side.

After the war, he stayed in the Army, and fought as well in the Korean War where he was with the first American platoon to reach the Yalu River.  But like so many of that Greatest Generation, J.W. never thought of himself as a hero at all.  Remembering the thousands who died on that same day that he was captured, in fact, in his words, “the real hero was the plain old gutty doughboy that hit the beaches and climbed the cliffs.”

And that’s very true indeed. But on this seventh-fifth anniversary of the D-Day Invasion that changed the world, you couldn’t convince me that Lieutenant Colonel John Wesley Simmons, whom I was honored to call my father-in-law, wasn’t a hero as well.

Even if he never did make it to the right side of the Douve River.

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Going On to Home Base (And Perfection)

To be sure, no one is ever really out, even if those on the other team somehow manage to catch the ball in flight, throw it back, and physically chase down and tag the hitter. For in Dream League baseball, it’s all about giving those with special needs– physical, mental, or developmental–the chance to simply experience America’s Pastime and feel the crack of the bat for themselves, even if someone else may be holding that bat with them.

“Angels in the outfield,” or the youth or adults who shadow the participants, not only run the bases, sometimes pushing wheelchairs or even picking up and carrying the players, but they stand–or sit in the grass– with them wherever they may be on the field, even when their partner may be seemingly oblivious to the game around them.

Likewise, rather like 1 Corinthians 13 suggests, in Dream League baseball, love keeps no record of wrongs, or strikes, or scores at all for that matter.  Each team bats until every player has had at least one chance to get on base.  And often, the adult who is pitching will come within just a few feet of the batter, gently toss the ball, and then, should the batter only get it a couple of inches from the base, they will use their own foot to subtly kick that hit further away.

Doubles are de rigueur, homeruns happen regularly, and everybody who makes it around the bases, whether they have actually touched them or not, hears the umpire cry “Safe!” when they arrive back home to the cheers of the crowd, sometimes passing the player in front of them to get there first.

Some might say, of course, that this is not baseball at all, that without all of the rules and regulations–and don’t even get me started on infield fly balls– you can’t really play the game.  But they would be absolutely wrong.  For this is actually baseball at its purest, played out by kids of all ages who are there simply for the chance to participate in a team sport and activity that does not leave them wanting.

A cynic could, of course, comment on the less than perfect skills and abilities of those players, saddled by situations that no doubt sideline them elsewhere in our physically conscious society.  But there is a perfection that is on display at every game, nonetheless, found not just in the differently abled bodies of the players who persevere against numerous odds, but in the care and kindness shown by all those present for everyone else. Indeed, one could even say that both players and their on-field angels perfectly embody what John Wesley called “going onto perfection,” as they are clearly being perfected in love in this life.

In a world obsessed with assessing others, consumed by comparison, all with an eye towards creating winners and losers in every endeavor, the Dream League is thus both an oasis and an example of the beloved community that can be found whenever we look to find God’s perfection in others, no matter what the world might say about them.

Out of all the things we do as a church, in fact, sponsoring a Dream League team is perhaps one of the best as those involved preach a far better sermon on Saturday mornings at the ball fields next door than I can ever do on Sundays in our sanctuary.  For the real dream in this league is that of a world in which those around us are valued for who they really are, that is, sacred and dearly loved children of God.

And if you can watch a game without wiping a tear from your eye, I hate to tell you, but you’ve got a greater disability than anyone else who may be there.

(Photo used by permission)

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