An Unwilling Undertaking

I feel for the guy. For he certainly wasn’t the first fellow ever to go rather begrudgingly–or as he put it, “very unwillingly”– to church. After all, in terms of his pastoral career trajectory, it hadn’t gone exactly as he might have hoped it would so far.

The missionary gig, for instance, was pretty much a bust.  For his inability to commit to the girl he loved led her to give up and marry someone else, leading him not only to a broken heart but to a singularly stupid misjudgment when he then tried to deny her communion.  He got out of town, in fact, just before being arrested by the uncle of that girl who just happened to be the constable in that community.

Likewise, on the way back home, those same kinds of doubts that most of us have had at one time or another began to rise to the forefront of his thinking again as well.  “I went to America to convert the Indians,” he wrote, “but oh, who will convert me?”  For in his own estimation, he had nothing more than a “fair summer religion…I can talk well; indeed and believe myself, while no danger is near,” he said.  “But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled.”

When he arrived back in his own land, thus, it was fairly evident that he was in a pretty dark place of despondency indeed.  For despite his background and education, even his ordination and pastoral service, he still didn’t quite have the personal faith he wanted, which was a “sure trust and confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, my sins are forgiven and I reconciled to the favour of God.”

And then, as so very often happens, that same God sent along someone as an answer to his prayers, a young German by the name of Peter Bohler, who was on his way to serve as a missionary to slaves in South Carolina.  And though John disputed Peter’s words at first, arguing that forgiveness and peace could only be earned by continual effort, Bohler pushed back, telling him, “my brother, my brother, that philosophy of yours must be purged away!”

Still, the idea of salvation by faith alone, to say nothing of “instantaneous conversions,” was a rather strange notion indeed to that preacher’s kid turned Anglican priest.  Confused and convicted, he considered “leaving off preaching,” in fact, but then his new friend Peter told him not to hide the talent God had given him, but simply to “preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

It was in such a state of uncertainty, thus, that he went that night to a Moravian meeting in the City of London at Alders Gate, just a few feet from Charterhouse where he had gone to boarding school as a boy.  But there, at about a quarter till nine, while listening to someone read from the preface of Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, John Wesley finally figured out the change which God can work in a person’s life through faith in Christ.

“I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote.  “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

And from that moment on, both the faith and mission of John Wesley found a new impetus and energy indeed. To be sure, temptations and trials still buffeted him, and from time to time, he continued to struggle with despair and doubts, even decades afterwards. But after experiencing his own personal Pentecost, John Wesley knew that ultimately he would never be the same again. For he now understood that it is faith, not fear, that should lead us to salvation, and armed with that newfound belief, John and his brother Charles quite literally changed the world.

On this Aldersgate Day May 24, exactly two hundred and eighty years after that night, it’s good to be reminded that whatever it takes, God will never give up on getting us to a place of genuine faith in our lives either.  We just have to go wherever He may lead us.

“Very unwillingly” or not.

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An Old Robe for an Old Friend

I’ll don it today for the last time.  For after almost thirty years in the pulpit, it’s now become a bit frayed and in serious need of repair.  It seems particularly appropriate, however, that the preaching robe I wear be the same one I got after receiving my Ph.D. long ago, largely because of this man.

To be clear, Niels Nielsen was not simply the chair of the Religious Studies Department at Rice University, but he was both my mentor and my friend.  His was a brilliance wrapped in generosity, and I’ve never known anyone smarter than he was.  But I’ve also never seen someone whose enormous intellect was always expressed through a graciousness that spoke volumes about his own faith.

He came to Rice in 1951, joining the Philosophy Department until, that is, he managed to formulate a Religious Studies Department of its own, becoming its first and longest tenured chair.  What’s more, he not only raised funds for the program, but he raised both its profile and even its physical presence, as it became housed on the fourth floor of Lovett Hall sitting directly over– as theology, the “queen of sciences,” should— the Philosophy Department itself.

What was still more impressive, however, was how he was able to carve out a real place for religious study at a consciously secular and at times suspicious institution such as Rice. Even those who did not believe in God came to believe in Niels Nielsen’s sincerity and superior intellect.

Likewise, to a struggling graduate student, Professor Nielsen always knew exactly what to say, reminding me at just the right moments that the process of getting a Ph.D. was a bit like joining a fraternity:  you simply had to hang on and push through until you got there, no matter how many extensions he had to give me.

And despite his erudition, he nonetheless sometimes summed up the Christian faith by paraphrasing the words of a 1940’s popular song:  “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby,”that is to say, are you really a child of God or not?  For Professor Nielsen, there was no question at all: he loved the Lord with not just his soul and strength, but with all his amazing mind as well.

He once wrote that the church was meant to stand at the “juncture of our world’s needs and the kingdom of God.”  Its message, he said, was one of salvation, and it matters very much “that this message be proclaimed with the power of the Holy Spirit.”

I’ll try my best today to do just that as I stand in his church in Houston in a robe that needs a replacement to speak about a professor who plainly professed Christ in his life. Clearly, however, there will be no replacing of this man who forever changed not just my life, but the lives of so many others.  His was, in the words of Rice’s motto, “unconventional wisdom” indeed.

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God Bless You, Sir

As he sat in the front across from us, you would never have known he was in pain. For he not only took the time to answer all of our questions, he had questions for us as well, wanting to know how we were doing in the school which he had helped to start.  And then, after sharing a quiet but fervent prayer, “in Jesus’ name,” of course, he quietly went out, got into an ambulance, and was taken to the hospital for a severe bout of phlebitis, never having said a word about his own discomfort to anyone.  For it was never about him, just the One whom he so ably represented.

He was well known, of course, for speaking to far larger crowds than those of us in a seminary lecture hall. Likewise, he gave counsel to presidents and prime ministers, queens and countless celebrities, preaching to some 200 million folks around the globe across his long career.  Some called him the Protestant Pope and others said he was “America’s Pastor” but he was clearly a gift to the entire world.  We called him “Dr. Graham,” but he just introduced himself as “Billy,” for though he may have been a spiritual father to many, he made it clear that he was simply our brother in Christ.

When news of his passing came today, thus, I found myself– like millions — feeling the genuine loss of a man who not only modeled ministry to me, but helped to form my own understanding of what it means to be a Christian man. For through it all, his message never really changed, focused on the sinfulness of man, the necessity of conversion, and the anticipated wonders of heaven for all who believe in Christ one day.

Likewise, Dr. Graham himself changed very little, despite reaching the vaulted age of 99. He never made any plans for retirement, though he conceded that God might have done so for him.  And he slowed down only when his infirmities compelled him to do so.  Parkinson’s Disease, along with the death of his beloved wife of 64 years, Ruth, made the last decade of his life a quieter one, however, and for the last several years, he spent most of his days at his North Carolina home.

But his legacy lives on, not simply in their five children (all of whom are in Christian ministry) and 19 grandchildren, but in the literally millions who came to faith after listening to “the young man with a burning message,” as he earlier was called. And the lessons he taught us in his visits to Gordon-Conwell Seminary live on in my life as well.

  • Watch your money and your morals, for instance. For Dr. Graham not only established a board that could pay him a modest salary and hold him accountable, rather than become rich himself from the many crusades he held, but he rather famously took care never to put himself into what could become a compromising position.

 

  • Speak truth to power and don’t be seduced by success. Despite his southern upbringing, Dr. Graham insisted that all of his early crusades be fully integrated, and when Martin Luther King was once put in jail, it was Billy Graham who bailed him out. Similarly, during the apartheid era, Dr. Graham refused to visit South Africa until its government allowed integrated seating for audiences. And when Jerry Falwell invited him to join the Moral Majority in 1979, Dr. Graham declined, suggesting that preachers have to stand in the middle to speak to all people, right and left. (He also acknowledged that he had not been as careful to do that at a few points in his life, particularly with one president, and he regretted his missteps.)
  • And never minimize what God can do both in and through your life. Dr. Graham often spoke at the triennial Intervarsity student missions conference in Urbana, Illinois, where he challenged the thousands in attendance to commit to following Jesus wherever He might take them. And listening to him there one year his message was just the same as in that seminary room. For he quoted a six-word phrase that had been written in the Bible of William Borden, an heir to the dairy fortune who died in Egypt in 1913 on his way to China to serve in the mission field there: “no reserves, no retreat, no regrets.”

Heaven is a sweeter place today because of the homecoming of a remarkable man whose life demonstrated the power of those words. My life is better as well because of the work he did and the witness he made.  And one day, I’ll get to shake his hand once more, assuming I can make my way through the crowd in heaven of all those who are there because of him.

Well done, sir, well done indeed. You will be missed by many.

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A Picture Worth a Million Words

It might fetch all of a dollar at a garage sale, I suspect, for in truth, it’s not that great of a painting. The name of the artist, if it was ever known, is long gone, and the scene itself is pretty simple– a watercolor of the Tatra Mountains in what is now Slovakia, just along the Polish border. But the glass-framed image that has graced my study for forty years is actually worth far more than one could imagine.  For to me, at least, what it represents is actually a picture of generosity.

I first came across it when it was hanging on the wall of a Christian’s home in that area, one of just a few objects that decorated his rather small and sparse dwelling. We had gone there to take Bibles for his village for, at the time, the Word of God was still outlawed and rather hard to find in that formerly Communist country.  But when we got up to leave, our host insisted that we take a gift from him in return.  Then taking a picture off his wall, he presented it to me against all of my attempts to refuse his extraordinary kindness.

And since that day, whenever I have pondered what it means to give sacrificially, I’ve thought of my friend long ago. For true generosity has nothing to do with the level of one’s riches, but the richness of one’s heart.  St. Paul put it this way, in fact, saying that “if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” (2 Corinthians 8.12)

Could it be that the good apostle might say the same thing to you and me?

 

 

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Can Santa Save The United Methodist Church?

It was an unexpected encounter when we arrived at the church. For though I knew all the legends about the famous bishop of Myra—how others marveled at his generosity and kindness—I hadn’t realized that when the Saracens conquered Turkey where Myra was located, that his bones were actually stolen and brought to Italy for “safekeeping,” ending up in the southern coastal town of Bari. And there he quickly displaced the first “patron saint” of that community as the new and more famous one.

It’s said, in fact, that when his remains arrived in Puglia in 1087 that the animals pulling the ox cart to carry his coffin to the existing church suddenly stopped and refused to go any further, and so a new cathedral, the Basilica de San Nicola, was built on that very spot near the harbor instead. With two large towers that frame the façade, it is an impressive place indeed, and it’s easy to see how the church has also been used as a castle throughout the years.

What first caught our attention, however, was the large statue in the courtyard outside. For inscribed in both Italian and Russian is the explanation that the bronze monument was a gift ten years ago to Bari from none other than Vladimir Putin in honor of the wonder-working saint and of the age-old desire for all to live in peace.

And when we went inside, we were delighted to hear not only a Roman Catholic choir singing at a wedding being performed in the main nave, but downstairs to hear the equally sweet chants of Orthodox monks surrounding the tomb where the saint’s relics are buried. For many decades ago, the basilica became home not only to a Catholic community of Dominican friars but to an Orthodox chapel as well. It is a fitting tribute indeed thus to the venerable Nicholas who has become everyone’s saint, bringing together Christians from both East and West to confess one God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I stood on the stairway between the two groups simultaneously singing God’s praises, though in different tongues and different styles, I wondered whether or not St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker might have one more miracle left within him. For if he can bring together both East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, Italians and Russians, is it possible that if we adopt his spirit of generosity and selflessness that even United Methodists who disagree on so many things might be able to live under the same roof still?

To be sure, there are significant differences between traditional conservative Methodists and those who favor more progressive views, focused on questions of full inclusion and human sexuality, but rooted as well in differing understandings of scriptural authority and biblical interpretation. But a millennium ago, just before the remains of Nicolas arrived in Bari, the differences between the Eastern and Western portions of the church were far greater, with Pope Leo IX excommunicating the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius in 1054 for “trying to humiliate and crush the holy catholic and apostolic church,” followed by the Patriarch then excommunicating Leo.

Before we leave yet another Christmas season entirely, thus, perhaps there’s yet a lesson to be learned from the example of the ancient saint who spent all he had on others.  As we enter into a year of discernment for our church’s future, here’s hoping Santa will bring all of us the gift of kindness.

 

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When God Came Down

(Following my custom of writing a new poem for each Christmas, the following was included in the weekly worship guide at Christ Church of Sugar Land for today, December 24.)

It’s Christmas Eve and on this night

A distant moon ago,

In far-off ancient Bethlehem

Where few would even go,

God came to earth, and had His birth

That all the world might know

His love broke in, despite our sin,

His glory thus to show.

 

For in that stable bare and mean

Where lady Mary lay,

The power of God was swaddled too

Asleep upon the hay.

The shepherds came to see Him

For they heard the angels say,

“The favor of the Lord has come

To earth this glorious day.”

 

And from afar, the Christmas Star,

Led Wise Men on their way

To find the King, their gifts to bring

And there to kneel and pray.

So may we all, both great and small,

Like them, give thanks and praise

For Christ was born that glorious morn

The joy of all our days.

 

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A Methodist Goes to Rome

He was twenty-seven when he made the trip, feeling enormously grateful for the chance to go and see it all for himself. For even half a millennia ago, the Eternal City was still an ancient destination, filled with all kinds of amazing artifacts from antiquity that bore silent witness to the glory of an empire that once ruled the world.

Still relatively new in his spiritual calling, however, it was not ruins that interested the young priest but religious renewal, and spending a month in Rome seemed to offer enormous possibilities towards that end. Only as Martin Luther settled into his new surroundings, what soon began to overwhelm him was both the ineptitude and the outright immorality of many of those within the Vatican.

Priests rushed through the mass in a race to complete as many each day as possible, for instance, telling Luther to “passa, passa” or speed it up when he said the liturgy.  And the shameful scandal of the Renaissance popes, siring children and selling off indulgences, still lingered like a bad odor in the church infecting all.   Thus, as Roland Bainton long ago expressed it in his classic biography of the reformer, Luther was horrified to hear that “if there were a hell Rome was built upon it.”

There were good people of faith there as well, of course, for God has always had His sacred, if sometimes secret, agents scattered throughout. As disgusted as he was by what he saw, Luther thus continued to believe that the church that he served still held the valid means of grace, even if seven years later—five hundred years ago on Tuesday, in fact– he challenged that church in a movement that became known as the Protestant Reformation.

But walking through the Vatican last week, I have to admit that I too found myself wondering what to make of church leaders whose egos and impulses were clearly out of control. For in erecting room after room, and indeed, palace after palace, filled with monuments to themselves, the overarching ambition of many of the popes seemed to be simply to be remembered, no matter how much money and maneuvering it took to do so.  And that temptation, so it seems, still needs to be checked in all of us, both Protestants and Catholics, who dare to lead God’s people.  For whenever ministry is about us, it becomes self-serving and not at all worthy of the One who came to serve all.

On the other hand, should you happen to be in Rome one of these days, you might want to look out for a used grey Ford Focus.  For if you look closely at the elderly man in it moving through those ancient city streets, he may look slightly familiar to you.  His name is Francesco, and had he been the pope when Luther visited Rome in 1510, we can only imagine how things might have turned out a bit differently.

Even for this Methodist making his first trip to Rome as well.

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