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 https://umc-gbcs.org/blog/a-bridge-back-to-God-a-Lenten 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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The Donkey, The Elephant and The Lamb

It was Harvey Cox, a professor I studied with long ago in Boston, who said it most succinctly: “not to decide is to decide.” Sometimes, however, the choices don’t seem to be all that choice when it comes to elections.

Both of the current leading candidates for president, for instance, have ideas that are worth considering and they certainly have displayed high energy levels that could put folks half of their ages to shame. But both also seem to be dragging along with them a cartload of baggage that could potentially far overshadow whatever good they might be able to do.

So like millions of other folks, I find myself wondering just exactly how we got here. For as I suggested in a sermon a few weeks ago, it feels a little like when Samuel went to find a new king and Jesse brought seven of his sons before him for tryouts.

After looking over the boys carefully–and receiving a reminder from the Lord that it’s not what is visible that counts, but what is in the heart–Samuel finally said to Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

Or, in short, what Samuel wanted to know was what many today might also wish to ask, namely “Is there anyone else out there from which to choose?” For sometimes just picking the least offensive of our choices doesn’t negate the fact that the lesser of two evils is still evil.

And so when it comes to this election some will simply sit it out, I suspect. But I’m not so certain that is a faithful response either. For if we are indeed the salt of the earth as Jesus told us, surely we’ve been summoned to sprinkle out our seasoning on society rather than simply stay safely ensconced in a salt dome somewhere on the sidelines.

One of my new friends, Susan Henry-Crowe, who ably leads our denominational Board of Church and Society, recently noted that the word suffrage means the right to vote but, she added, it has a secondary definition as well: suffrage is also a series of short intercessory prayers and petitions. In that sense, thus, voting is not simply a civic responsibility but it can even be an act of prayer and faith.

It may not be an easy decision for many of us. For in truth, there is no perfect candidate for president this year, but then there never has been. The good news, however, is that God has a great track record of using imperfect vessels for His purposes and He can even make Pennsylvania Avenue the Road to Damascus if He chooses.

Likewise, because we’ve not been called to be followers of either the donkey or the elephant, but of the Lamb Himself, on November 9, no matter who has been elected, He will still be our King.

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Pursuing the Word

With spies, lies, and a shipwreck thrown in for good measure, his life was anything but dull. But then when you begin to criticize others for their rank ignorance of scripture, as well as for their decidedly unbiblical lifestyles, you can probably figure it will make some folks mad, as indeed it did.

Still, the young man grew convinced that until the scriptures were plainly laid out in their native language that it would be impossible for the average Christian in England to ever really know the truth.  And so he pledged to one clergyman that if God should spare his life, he would so work that “a boy that drives the plough” should know as much about the Bible as that pastor himself.

It was no easy task, to be sure.  For fearing the spread of radical Lutheran ideas, the Catholic bishops in his homeland had actually banned any Bible published in English, preferring instead the use of the rather inaccurate Latin translation of the day known as the Vulgate, and going so far as to actually prescribe the death sentence for anyone who produced an “unlicensed” English version of the Bible. Even the official courses of theology did not include any systematic study of scripture, in fact, for as he later complained, “they have ordained that no man shall look on scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.”

And so, with no real encouragement from anyone in the church, William Tyndale left his native England for Europe, never to return.  It was in Wittenberg, the home of Luther, that the thirty-two-year old gifted linguist completed his initial translation in 1525, the first to go directly from the Greek text of the New Testament into English.  When he went to Cologne to print it, however, before the presses could get past Matthew 22, a police raid shut them down, only moments after Tyndall escaped clutching the copies of what had been completed thus far.

The young scholar then fled to Worms, an imperial German city which had already begun to embrace Lutheranism.  And it was there that he managed to finish publishing 6,000 copies of his translation, many of which were soon smuggled back into England and Scotland in barrels of flour, further fueling the opposition to Tyndale’s work.  The religious leaders of those lands attacked him relentlessly, in fact, not only burning those volumes in public, but even sending secret agents to the continent to try and trap him.  What’s more, another problem soon arose in the form of pirated and incorrect versions of his translation that began showing up, including one by his close friend and co-worker George Joye, much to the reformer’s lament.

Tyndale labored on, however, moving to Antwerp where he found the support of a few English merchants who helped to both hide him and advance his work as he turned his attention next to the Old Testament. But early in 1529, having completed his rendering of the Torah, or the first five books of Moses, Tyndale was traveling back to Hamburg when, like the apostle Paul centuries before him, he was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands, and his entire freshly translated Pentateuch perished in the sea, along with all of his reference books, including the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Hebrew grammars, and the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

His response was simply to start again, doubling down to do his work all over until he finally finished it once more in 1530. And in the next few years, Tyndale went on to focus on the rest of the Old Testament, translating most of the historical books as well as Jonah.  In May of 1535, however, the authorities finally caught up with Tyndale at Antwerp, arresting him on a charge of heresy and holding him in a dark, dank cell devoid of any sunlight near Brussells for sixteen months where the Englishman waited patiently, “abiding the will of God.”   And sadly, despite the appeals of many, it was there on October 6, 1536, that at the age of just forty-two, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned.

His last words were reported to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” And that prayer was apparently answered, for within four years of his death, four English translations of the Bible were published in that country at the behest of Henry VIII, all of them based on Tyndale’s labors.  It has been said, in fact, that every English New Testament for the four centuries that followed him was simply a revision of Tyndale’s work, with some 90 percent of his words passing into the King James Version of 1611 and even 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version of 1946.

And some 486 years later this very week, it’s a story that those who read the Bible might do well to remember still. For though it may sound odd to us today, in a time in which the Word of God is both ignored by many and contorted to conform to the culture by others, at least to one faithful disciple of Jesus, the scriptures were literally worth dying for, and their careful translation into English was a sacred task deserving of whatever it took.

All, we could say, so that ploughboys and pastors alike might understand the love of God which shines through on every page of that incredible book.


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