Borrowing the Crown

It will be a spectacle on Saturday, to be sure.  For when Charles III–perhaps the longest man ever to wait for his real job to finally kick in–is crowned in Westminster Abbey the symbolism will more than outweigh the sentiments.  What’s more, those in Christian circles will instantly recognize many of the words that will be said.

When a fourteen-year-old chorister welcomes the king, for instance, Charles will respond by saying, “In His name and after His example, I come not to be served but to serve.”

When the moderator of the Church of Scotland presents a red-leather bound bible to the sovereign—presumably a King James Version, just to keep it in the family—Charles will symbolically acknowledge a source of truth greater than any other.

When the Prime Minister—a Hindu—reads from Colossians 1.9-17, He will remind those assembled that in Christ “all things were created, things in Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rules or authorities,” for “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.”

Similarly, Charles will be anointed with oil harvested from two groves from the Mount of Olives, pressed just outside Bethlehem, and consecrated by both the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Anglican Archbishop from there.

And then when the crimson Robe of State is put upon Charles, who will be wearing a simple white shirt befitting one who comes before God as a servant, the Archbishop of Canterbury will say: “Receive this Robe.  May the Lord clothe you with the robe of righteousness and with the garments of salvation.”

All of which is appropriate indeed for stepping into a role in which he will be not simply the British Head of State, but the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, according to the original words at least, the “Defender of the Faith,” a la Jude 3, not simply a defender of more generic faith as Charles himself has suggested the title should read.

What appears to be missing, however, are the words which long ago a different Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced when he laid the crown upon the head of Charles’ mother, Queen Elizabeth II: “I give thee, o sovereign lady, this crown to wear until He who reserves the right to wear it shall return.”

And those would seem to be the most important words of all.  For even with an English son-in-law and grandchildren, and a daughter who just this week received her dual citizenship in England, all the pomp and circumstance in the world should not cloud us to one undeniable truth:  Supreme sovereignty lies with God alone.  So, if we have been granted a position in which to exercise authority over others ourselves—such as a monarch, a president, a teacher, a boss, a bishop, or even a parent—we do so only on His behalf in this world.

Or to put it another way, all crowns on this earth are only borrowed. Whether those words are said or not on Saturday, here’s hoping that all of us, including the new King and Queen of England, may remember that.

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The God of Thunder (no, not Thor)

The fierce storms that rolled through our Houston area neighborhood last night, with more thunder and lightning than I can ever remember hearing and seeing, made me think of him.  For it was on a hot summer’s day in 1505 that a twenty-one-year-old university student in Germany found himself unexpectedly caught in a similar storm while on the open road from his home back to school.  And, as his classical biographer, Roland Bainton, long ago wrote, in a single flash of sudden lightning his life was changed forever:

“There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell,” as Bainton so colorfully expressed it.  And in response, that student cried out to the patron saint of miners, saying, “Saint Anne, help me!  I will become a monk.”

To be sure, given the circumstances, he probably could have been absolved of that hasty vow.  His father, in fact, was deeply angry about the decision, having planned a different and far more lucrative career for his brilliant son.  But Martin Luther believed himself to be under divine constraint and so within two weeks he arrived at the door of an Augustinian monastery to “take the cowl” and present himself as a novice.  

And true to form, Luther plunged into his new vocation vociferously.  For it is said that he positively wore out his confessor by appearing so frequently before him–sometimes multiple visits in one day– to seek absolution from almost everything he either thought or did.  But Luther was simply looking for an answer to the hunger in his heart that his encounter along his own road to Damascus had awakened, namely, how to be justified in the eyes of a righteous God.

We know now, of course, that the answer for him came not in a confessional booth but in a conscious study of God’s Word that led him to understand for the first time the meaning of God’s grace.  It was not penitence that was needed, but repentance, and when he discovered that idea of justification by faith—sola fide–he began a revolution that was to change the world.

Nothing quite so dramatic came out of the Texas storms last night, I suspect.  But they too were a reminder that whenever we may write off God in deference to all of our human wisdom, or even artificial intelligence, the Creator of the Universe has a way of rumbling back into our lives and reminding us of just how powerful He really is.

It’s no wonder that centuries after Luther, the largely self-taught son of a slave and captivating preacher, Charles Tindley, summed it up in one of his best known hymns by writing simply these words:  “when the storms of life are raging, stand by me…in the midst of tribulation, stand by me… when the hosts of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail, Thou who never lost a battle, stand by me.”

Words worth remembering perhaps the next time an unexpected storm or sudden bolt of lightning may strike in your own life, too.

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How “Terribly Strange?”

He was only twenty-four when he wrote the words, so we can forgive him if he got it a little wrong.  For while beautifully extolling the virtues of “old friends,” Paul Simon posed the question, “can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?” and then he added, “how terribly strange to be seventy.”

Reaching that milestone marker today myself, however, I have to think that being seventy may feel a little odd, but it’s not “terribly strange” at all.  Rather, it’s “wonderfully blessed.”  For looking back over the first seven decades of my life I am enormously grateful for every age and stage and how I have seen God work in them.

My childhood years (or at least what I can remember of them) were on the whole happy ones and when I became a teenager, I received a gift that I still cherish:  a Honda 50 motorcycle, a moving metaphor for independence, long before that company began making cars as well.  In my twenties, I not only had the privilege of sitting and learning from incredible teachers at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, but of discovering for myself as a missionary in what was then Communist Eastern Europe that I really could trust God in everything.  And when I came back, most significantly at the age of 24, God gifted me with an incredible help-mate for life, a beautiful woman in a yellow dress that captured my heart and still holds it.

In my thirties, two incredible children came into our lives, and we’ve been laughing and loving with them ever since.  And entering the next decade I had the joy of turning forty while working on a college campus surrounded by eighteen-year-olds whose youthful enthusiasm was fortunately contagious. 

The fifties brought the arrival of grandchildren into our lives, which eventually blossomed into a matched set of three rather remarkable kids on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.  And in the decade just completed, I not only discovered a new-found love for the land of Israel, but I was privileged to work in helping to birth a new Methodist church as well.

And all along the way, in good days and in bad, what I’ve discovered is that God has been constant in both His character and His caring.  As enormously talented as Paul Simon was, in fact, it’s Jenn Johnson who got it right, I think.  For it was while driving on a long country road during the adoption process of their son that Jenn began to think about the faithfulness and kindness of God.  And so, she recorded a song into her phone with words that find a special resonance with me on this day:  

“All my life You have been faithful, all my life You have been so, so good, with every breath that I am able, I will sing of the goodness of God.”

I’m thankful indeed for my “winter companions” as Paul Simon called them.  But we are not just “lost in our overcoats waiting for the sunset.”  We’re lost in wonder, love, and praise, waiting for the Son.

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(For many years it has been my practice to write a new poem each Advent.  Here’s my offering for 2022.)

Amidst the changes bold and deep

That sometimes steal away my sleep

Your promises You always keep


And when the ebb and flow of life

Brings sometimes gladness, sometimes strife

Your Word cuts through all like a knife


For long ago and far away

Within a manger on the hay

You burst into this world that day


What prophets longed to one day see

What others thought could never be

The joy of Your nativity


Despite our doubts and all our sin

Our pride and will to always win

To each heart You will enter in


For in these days of ordered mirth,

The meaning of Your humble birth

Is that You came down to this earth


 “God with Us” is Your sweet Name

And You still heal the sick and lame

Our lives need never be the same


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Leaving Home

When they dropped me off at my dorm in Dallas, I’m fairly sure than neither my parents nor I had any idea of what was actually happening that day.  For though I went home for holidays many times after I moved away to college, it was never quite the same.  

At the seasoned age of nineteen, I began my first church job, working as a summer youth director in Baytown where I lived in a rather rickety garage apartment on stilts behind the associate pastor’s parsonage. And the following year, I moved further down the bay to do the same in Texas City.  Two years later I was ordained as a deacon, just days before heading to Europe to work in Slavic missions behind the Iron Curtain.

Thus began a half century of ministry within The United Methodist Church that has included pastoring nine churches, administering a church-owned college, working on a national church newspaper, as well as teaching in both denominational and ecumenical seminaries.  Ministry has taken me across the world, not just to Europe but to the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even Siberia, as well as to more church conferences than I’m sure the Geneva Convention allows.  I even hold the record for the shortest tenure on the cabinet ever within our conference, going to serve my present church before I actually moved into my new office in the conference building.

More significantly, my wife and I were married in her United Methodist church in Arkansas and both of our children were baptized in UM churches where I was serving when they were born.  We’ve lived in eleven parsonages, as well as two or three apartment complexes and even the Ronald McDonald House in Houston in which we served as the founding managers just to help make ends meet.  All until we bought the first house of our own at the age of sixty, much to the amusement of our realtor who quickly discovered we knew nothing about home ownership.  But in every place, it has been the church which has provided for that roof over our heads, one way or the other.

Across the years we have also met many incredible church folks whose faith and love not only inspired us, but also carried us through challenges and hard times. They’ve loved on us in immeasurable ways and we in turn have both celebrated and cried with them.  All of which is why it is difficult indeed to walk away from this denomination around which most of our lives have revolved for the last five decades.

But I also know it is time.  For though Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the church I joined long ago is sadly not.  After fifty-four years of a bold experiment in theological pluralism, in fact, it is now clear that the grand notion of a big tent when it comes to defining our beliefs did not work, as those embracing differing views on “essentials” (to use a Wesleyan term) have slowly but surely drifted further and further apart.  And so, for an evangelical Wesleyan such as myself, it now feels as though I no longer have a home in The United Methodist Church.

After preaching my last sermon as a United Methodist pastor thus on Christmas Day, on December 31 I will no longer be a part of the denomination to which I have belonged since the age of 15 when the UMC itself was formed.  And despite my sometimes lover’s quarrel with that body, I’m certain it will be a poignant goodbye indeed. For like that day in Dallas five decades ago, I’m leaving home once more, and I know it will never be quite the same again.   

Blessedly, however, on the following day, I will begin a new chapter as an elder in the Global Methodist Church, a fresh expression of the Wesleyan witness which I believe to be a better fit for my own biblical and theological understandings. And since I can’t actually find the word “retirement” anywhere in the Bible, I hope to keep on serving in the GMC however I can, albeit at a slightly less frantic pace.

As we stand at this crossroads, thus, I wish my friends in The United Methodist Church only the best in their journey.  And following the admonition in Jeremiah 6.16, my prayer is that all of us may do our best to ask for the ancient paths, to discover where the good way is, and to walk in it, finding rest for our souls indeed. 

For sometimes you really do have to leave home in order to find it.

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Walking the Long Road

It felt a little like watching the odometer turn over in my car.  For when my watch hit “1,461 days” this morning it seemed momentous to me indeed.  Because for four years now—through hurricanes, heat waves, and hotel parking lots—I’ve not missed a single day walking at least five miles, usually six or seven.  And hitting that four-year mark on my streak, going almost 9,000 miles or so now, has been a little like finishing college and earning a bachelor’s degree in walking.

To be sure, it’s only been by the grace of God.  For those that know me well will probably agree that I’m not the most athletic person around and getting up early to walk before the heat comes on does not exactly come naturally to me.  But then the streak too has had a way of self-perpetuating itself, joined by my smart—sometimes smart-aleck–watch, which has taunted me with messages like “You’re usually farther along by now…”

In the end, however, it’s all been a reminder about the power of a habit.  And in that regard, it’s not just our physical health that needs consistency, but it’s our mental, relational and spiritual conditions, as well.  The pandemic, for instance, broke the pattern of physically coming to church for some folks, and they’ve never quite gotten it back.  And others have unfortunately abandoned such spiritual disciplines as spending time in the scriptures with God each day.

Some twenty years ago, however, Eugene Peterson found a time-tested tonic for staying strong in our faith in what he called an “old dog-eared songbook,” that portion of the Psalms, chapters 120-134, known as the Songs of Ascents.  For it’s believed that these fifteen psalms were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the festivals that were held there some three times a year, and similarly, they may have been chanted by the Levite priests who climbed the sacred steps to serve at the Temple itself.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” one of them begins, “where does my help come from?”  And another starts simply by saying, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’” And still a third reminds us that “those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion which cannot be shaken but endures forever.” They are short passages, to be sure, but all of them are hopeful.  And all of them remind us that we too have been called to be pilgrims in this world, whether we ever actually go up to Jerusalem ourselves or not.

Maybe that’s why Peterson entitled his classic book simply, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  For that’s what it takes to faithfully follow the Lord in a frightfully fickle time indeed.  It’s not about running like a graceful gazelle, in fact, but simply about putting one foot in front of the other and plodding on, even when you don’t particularly feel inspired to do so.

Tomorrow morning, thus, I’ll hit the pavement again, though I’m also going to think about some new routines as well for the year ahead.  For though keeping a streak going can be a powerful motivator in itself, remembering just where you are headed can similarly put us on the right track.  And in that respect, a long obedience is not really for just four years… it’s for a lifetime. 

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Evil in Uvalde

You never get used to it, or at least you never should.  For the taking of even one life ought always to be a tragedy, and the kind of murder marathons that have marked so many of our cities in recent years has only multiplied the equation.  But when a mass shooting involves children, such as what happened on Tuesday in Uvalde, there is nothing left to call it other than pure evil. 

To be certain, even with no clue yet as to a motive, it has been said that the shooter must have been mentally ill, and that may indeed have been the case.  And other voices instantly pinned the blame on those who manufacture and sell automatic weapons and other guns in this country, a sentiment I can share at least in part, though strict gun laws in several states don’t seem to have curtailed their misuse in those places either.

We could likewise lament a culture that has downgraded the critical importance of families, particularly in-the-home fathers, pushed religious or moral beliefs out of the public square almost entirely, and that daily celebrates character assassination in a cyber universe that looks more like the old Wild West than any brave new world.  For coupled with an almost complete loss of civility elsewhere, the result has been a society that is increasingly both sad and even sociopathic, a world that clearly remains in rebellion against the One who made it.

Still, what we saw in Uvalde was something far worse, I think.  For this was a manifestation of the same de-animating force that arose long ago in Egypt when a ruthless pharaoh decreed that all the male babies of their Hebrew slaves be thrown into the Nile and drowned.  It’s likewise the same satanic spirit that appeared when a jealous king in Jerusalem ordered the slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem, one of whom was said to have been born the new King of the Jews.  

And it manifests the same murderous impulse that led to the intentional extermination of six million Jewish men, women, and children eighty years ago in Europe, as well as the shooting in cold blood of civilian women and children in Ukraine right now.

For in the end, evil doesn’t care about the age or innocence of its victims.  It only seeks to serve itself and its master.  Indeed, whether or not the shooter in Uvalde was “possessed” by the father of lies, it’s clear that he was one of his agents or recruits in the spiritual war that is raging all around us, even if we don’t quite see it.  

All of which is why in our baptismal vows we intentionally ask if converts to the faith will renounce evil in whatever form that it may present itself, resisting the devil and all his vainglory.  For unfortunately, the road to spiritual ruin is one that all too many seem obliviously happy to walk upon this day.  Deciding to go in the other direction is thus a constant conscious choice each of us must make.

Our hearts are broken today as we think of the children whose lives were so prematurely snuffed out, as well as their classmates who will forever bear the scar of having been at Robb Elementary on Tuesday and witnessed their own massacre of the innocents.  And we similarly grieve for the parents and families of those who died, knowing there is nothing harder on this earth than for a mother or father to have to bury their child.  We can’t begin to absorb the hurt that will now live in their hearts.  But we can cry alongside them and commend them to an eternal Father who knows exactly what it is to have lost His Only Son to the evils of this world.

And we can continue to pray: “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  For His really is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever.  Even on sad days such as these.

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The Ides Have It

It’s an odd word to modern ears, but it all goes back to the original Roman calendar which divided the year into ten months, beginning with one dedicated to the Roman god of war, Mars.  The days were then counted down in relation to the lunar phase of the moon using three markers:  Kalends, which came with the first phrase or new moon, Nones, denoting the first quarter moon (usually on the fifth or seventh day of the month) and Ides, which marked the full moon, falling either on the 13th or 15th day.  

The Ides of March was thus initially the first full moon of a new year, or March 15.  Romans knew how to party, of course, and so the day was generally celebrated down on the banks of the Tiber River with food, wine, and music. And in the era before the Empire in Rome, the Ides also marked the beginning of a new political year in which the two annually-elected consuls took office as the leaders of the duly constituted Republic.

Not long after changing the calendar, however–modestly naming it after himself, we might note–Julius Caesar also decided to change his own terms of office, becoming the Dictator Perpetuus, or “dictator for life.” And it was that monarchial grasp for power that led a group of Roman senators to try to take their Republic back by stabbing Julius Caesar to death at a meeting of the Senate itself on March 15, 44 B.C.

It’s said that he was stabbed some 23 times, in fact, by over sixty conspirators, but apparently only one of the wounds proved to be the fatal one, giving Caesar ample time to register his shock at the betrayal of even his friend Brutus. And so forever after, at least as envisioned in Shakespeare’s words, a soothsayer’s prophetic warning to Caesar has linked the day with the deed: “Beware the Ides of March.”

Given what has transpired over the past few weeks in the Ukraine, it is now clear that there is another Caesar on the world stage, whose brutality and grasp for power likewise seems to know no bounds.  The task of those who believe thus is to fervently pray that Vladimir Putin will either listen to God, or be dealt with by God who is hearing the cries of His people, not just in Ukraine, but also in Russia which has fallen under Putin’s cruel grasp.

If I were Putin, however, I think I might take a lesson from history on this Ides of March 2022 as to what eventually happens to all dictators.  For the phrase which some have attributed to Brutus (though he probably never actually said it) is nonetheless true: Sic Semper Tyrannis.  Thus Always to Tyrants.

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Cheer and Fear

It’s long been my practice to write a new poem for each Advent season.  With the experiences of 2021 still fresh in all of our minds, here’s my effort for this year:

In days of cheer and days of fear

The Lord is always ever near.

And so when time its fullness came,

One arrived to bear the Name.

So sacred it could not be spoken

By those whose lives the Law had broken.

For sin had cast its awful spell

But then came God to make us well.

He stepped into the world He made,

And in a manger He was laid,

The Word Made Flesh, Incarnate Love

Sent from the Godhead up above.

To bring us joy, increase our peace,

Till all our strivings one day cease,

And fears without, within, may pass

As we look on His face at last.

For long ago a child was born

Upon that blessed Christmas morn,

He came to earth with us to dwell,

Jesus, our Emmanuel.

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Getting to the First Thanksgiving

(As we come to the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, I have updated one of my earliest posts from nine years ago to reflect on just how amazing the journey of those Pilgrims truly was.)

Despite the old saying, getting there is often not half the fun at all. For while everyone knows at least some version of the story, what is often forgotten is that most of the Separatists who came to America to establish a religious colony here didn’t actually start in England at all. Rather, they began their historic voyage in Holland, where many had fled because of opposition to their religious beliefs in their homeland. Leaving the rest of their congregation and even their weeping and praying pastor behind, they boarded a ship called the Speedwell in Delfthaven, Holland, on July 22, 1620, sailing for four days to Southampton, England, where they met up with a companion ship called the Mayflower which had just come down from London.

That ship had a number of other passengers from England whom the Pilgrims did not really know–some were friends and others, simply investors that had become interested in the voyage while the Pilgrims had been doing an early version of crowd-sourcing to raise enough money for it. Like a lot of other church fundraising projects, however, the Pilgrims fell a bit short of meeting all of the expenses, and so they had to sell off most of their oil and butter–the only real assets they had–before they could leave Southampton.

They shoved off for America on August 5, but they only got a short way into the English Channel before being forced to land at Dartmouth (the English town, not the American college) because the Speedwell had sprung a leak. It took a couple of weeks to fix the ship, but on August 24, 1620, they finally started back on their voyage. And this time they got nearly 300 miles from Lands End in Cornwall out into the Atlantic before the Speedwell began to take on water once more.

They turned back again, thus, landing in Plymouth where it was finally determined that the Speedwell was not seaworthy enough to make the clearly dangerous cross-Atlantic voyage, and that further repairs would push them well beyond the safe season for sailing. At that point, twenty passengers had already had their fill of adventure and decided to just go back home. But the remaining dozen or so passengers and cargo were transferred from the Speedwell over to the somewhat larger Mayflower, which finally put out to sea by itself on September 6 with 102 passengers on board, three of whom were pregnant women, along with a crew of about 30.

Despite the overcrowding, the first half of the trip went well, with good winds and weather. One of the pregnant women, Elizabeth Hopkins, had her baby, whom they named Oceanus. But the smooth sailing came to an end about a month into the voyage when the little ship–just 25 feet wide and 106 feet long–was hit by so many storms and crosswinds that it began to leak as well. One of the main beams of the ship bowed and cracked, and they had to use a great iron screw to try to raise it back into place. Five of the passengers on board, including a young boy named William Button, died before they ever reached shore.

Finally, however, after going some 2,750 miles at an average speed of just two miles an hour, they spotted a spit of land which turned out to be Cape Cod. And there, on November 11, 1620, they finally landed, settling in for a hard winter in which 45 more of the original 102 passengers perished. It’s no wonder thus that when the survivors finished their first full year they were ready to give thanks in that celebrated feast with the Native Americans who had helped them make it that far.

But whatever happened to the Speedwell, you may wonder? Back in England it was repaired and fifteen years later, in 1635, it finally made the trip to Virginia with 59 people on board, including the owner and captain of that ship, a man named John Thomas Chappell. I know of him because he was one of my direct ancestors. Indeed, some will say that he set the family pattern when he missed sailing into history with the Mayflower, and in some ways, we’ve all been missing the boat ever since.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so much about getting into the history books as it is simply being faithful to whatever task that God may place before you. For if your life has ever seemed like a rocky voyage, you’ve probably figured out that in the end, it’s all pure grace anyway. Whatever journey in life we may be on, in fact, the only thing that really matters is that we get there with God through grace. Our sails may split and our mast may creak and even break. Just like on the Mayflower, and later in the new colony, some will die but others will be born. And as was the case with the Speedwell, we may not get to our destination just exactly when we were planning to.

If we stay the course, however, and stay in love with God and in love with those around us, we will get there, I believe. For the truth is that it’s not the pace but the race that matters as we run with perseverance the course that has been marked out for us (Hebrews 12.1) Or to put it another way, the operative words for us as not “speed well” but “God speed.”

Just keep your eyes on the real Captain of our Faith. (Hint: his name isn’t Chappell.)

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