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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A Post Harvey Hallelujah

(Sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen)

I’ve heard it said when storms may come,                                                                                    that some may panic, some may run,                                                                                             But they don’t know the power that comes from You.                                                                  For in the midst of wind and wave,                                                                                                 We find the strength to still be brave,                                                                                            For You can save, so we’ll sing hallelujah!

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Though twisters came and waters rose,                                                                                           And nature threw its cruelest blows,                                                                                                 In everything we heard the voice of You:                                                                                     “Fear not,” You said, “My peace I give,”                                                                                                 “I will be with you; you will live                                                                                                         To sing my praise again, O hallelujah!”

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

And so in all the days ahead,                                                                                                          We’ll turn to You, our Living Head,                                                                                         Whatever comes we’ll put our trust in You.                                                                                         In sunny days and darkest night,                                                                                                           With You we’ll stand and win the fight,                                                                                          And sing with voices bright, O hallelujah!

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

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From Inside the Ark

As morning dawns on Day Two the sanctuary has never been more holy. For scattered throughout its pews, as in classrooms and offices around the building, Christ Church truly is a refuge this day offering both safety and community to a host of evacuees from area floods who have found their way to our building.

That has not been easy in and of itself. For not only is the street on which we are located now flooded in both directions, our parking lot is also a running stream and our basement level has standing water as well, with the torrent held back only by a pair of glass doors and some sandbags.  Most of those who made it here came in the back of dump trucks as the city of Sugar Land began to pluck folks out of homes which are now in danger of flooding, or have already begun to do so.  A school bus likewise showed up with a group last night and as they stumbled in, the dazed look on their faces said it all.

Some had only a few moments notice, for instance, before being told they had to get out of their houses, and so the only possessions they brought were in a garbage sack or pillow case. Others walked here, slogging through the waters, and were quickly given youth or mission trip T-shirts to change into.  Two are in wheelchairs and there are at least a couple of babies as well.  And a number brought their family pets which slept with them in the classrooms we tried to give to families.

Reflective of our broader community–the most diverse county in the world, so we are told– the group is also incredibly varied, speaking several languages and representing numerous cultures and religious backgrounds. Still, we have become a little oecumenical ecclesia and most have tried to find some way to help, whether it is moving furniture, cooking pasta in our kitchen, or sharing what they do have with those around them.

There are some material blessings to give thanks for indeed. Though the power went off for a while yesterday afternoon it has been back on since and so lights, air conditioning and, of course, cell phone chargers have all been able to work.  We’ve kept our monitors on, tuned to a local TV station, allowing our guests to feel connected to what is happening outside of our instant island.  The staff and church volunteers who are here with us have absolutely been phenomenal.  And just now, we’ve learned that the staff at Berryhills, a local eatery, stayed up making 300 tamales which they somehow managed to get to us in the dark of night.  In turn, the city has promised to get us more food and bedding supplies, for it appears that more of our neighbors are on the way and that we are going to be here for some time to come.

In short, God has given us a lovely laboratory to live out the theme verse of our congregation in very tangible ways: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you… for in its peace you shall find your own.”  (Jeremiah 29.7)

So far our water-logged community is finding how to make it work. And under the high wooden rafters of our sanctuary… even with a few leaks… we have discovered again why the church really is the Ark of Salvation.






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A Word to the Windblown

(In light of the extreme weather conditions associated with Hurricane Harvey, the following devotional is being sent out to the members of Christ Church of Sugar Land, Texas, unable to gather together for corporate worship on August 27, but yet able to join in heart for all those affected by the storm and its aftermath.)

A little like those seven hapless travelers whose fabled “three hour tour” ended up turning into three years on “Gilligan’s Island,” the voyagers on this trip probably never saw it coming either. To be sure, when they left Caesarea and then Sidon, the winds had prevented them from taking the direct route over to Asia Minor (what we call Turkey today), and so they had been forced to pass on the leeward side of Cyprus, that is, the side that was downwind, which took several days longer than they had expected. And then from Cnidus down to the island of Crete, they had once again had to take the leeward side, causing in the words of Dr. Luke who was on that journey with Paul, “much time” to be lost, Acts 27.9. So much, in fact, that it was dangerous just to be out on the waters at all, much less try to cross the Aegean Sea.

For sailing after September 15 was doubtful and after November it was downright suicidal.   Only, as good old Luke the historian is quick to point out, since it was already after the Jewish Day of Atonement, that meant that it was at least October when they set out. So they probably knew that there was no way to make it all the way to Rome, but they reasoned that if they could only get to Phoenix, a little further to the west on the island of Crete from Fair Havens that it would at least be a much better place to spend the winter.

The little band thus set sail and when a gentle south wind began to blow, it might have seemed like, in spite of Paul’s prophecies of doom and gloom, that it was all going to work out. Until, that is, the kind of storm that they called simply a “Northeaster” hit them and, caught up in near hurricane force winds, that prison transport ship from Alexandria could do very little but simply be driven along by the wild gusts and gales. The storm was so intense, in fact, that those onboard were barely able to hoist up the lifeboat and secure it.

Only no sooner was that task accomplished but that the ship itself began to literally be torn apart. So they tied it together by passing cables and ropes under the ship– which meant that some poor sailor had to go down there — and when that wasn’t enough, they began to throw all of the cargo overboard to lessen the load. And when that wasn’t enough either, they then began to throw out even the essential spare parts– the extra masts and tackles that every ship would carry on a voyage in those seas. Only still there was no sign of relief.

For eleven days and nights the storm continued to pound them, making it impossible to see the sun in the day, or the stars at night, or even to be able to tell the difference between the two. The ship was leaking badly and there was little food left, but even what had not been destroyed or washed away went largely untouched, for as tired and weak as they all were–passengers and crew alike–who could have had an appetite to eat in such an impossible situation?

And so we can understand it all how they must have felt when Luke tells us in the astonishingly poignant words of verse twenty that when neither sun nor stars had appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.” For like that unexpected Northeaster on the Aegean Sea, Hurricane Harvey has come upon us suddenly and with little warning, as well, and it shows no signs at present on moving on in any kind of timely way.

Only read on just a few more verses of this rather gripping travel narrative in Acts and you will see that it wasn’t the end of the story. What’s more, when the storms of life are raging all around us as well such is not a time for us to give up hope either–it is not the moment for grumbling or dissent– it’s not the season for worry or impatience or anger–rather, it is a kairos or timely occasion for discipline and for courage. “Consider it pure joy, my brethren,” wrote James, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” “Endure hardship as discipline,” added the writer to the Hebrews.

And don’t you love it that even the apostle Paul, that seasoned and serious saint whose labors summoned and supported the early church of Christ, could not resist saying “I told you so” at least a little when despite his warnings the ship had sailed on for Phoenix, only to be smacked down by a storm that seemed to go on forever. “Men,” he says, “you should have taken my advice…then you would have spared yourself this damage and loss.” For Paul knew that sometimes the real storms in life aren’t those that come from the outside, they are the ones that churn up on the inside of us.

Victor Hugo tells in his last novel called “Ninety-Three” of another such ship that was once caught in a dangerous storm on the high seas. At the height of the storm, however, the frightened sailors heard a terrible crashing noise below the deck. And the reason it was so terrible is that they knew what it was, for the noise was coming from a cannon, part of the ship’s cargo, that had broken loose. It was moving back and forth with the swaying of the ship, crashing into the side of the ship with terrible impact.

Knowing that it could cause the ship to sink, two brave sailors volunteered to make the dangerous attempt to retie the loose cannon. Because they understood that the danger of a shipwreck from the cannon was greater than the fury of the storm. And that is like human life, isn’t it? The storms of life may blow about us, but sometimes it is not those exterior storms that pose the gravest danger. It is the terrible corruption that can exist within us which can overwhelm us. Because the furious storm outside may be overwhelming but it’s what is going on inside that poses the greater threat to our lives.

So that’s when discipline is needed. That’s when we simply need to fall back on what we know is right and follow the principles of our faith that have been proven to be timeless and trustworthy. When the unexpected gales of life are blowing, then in the words of the former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, “it’s no time to go wobbly.” Or as the popular slogan of England went during the dark days of the Second World War, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Because when the storms come, it’s also a time for courage. And that’s the best thing about this little story here in Acts 27.

For you see, St. Paul didn’t just remind his fellow voyagers that he had warned them about setting out on that journey, but he also went on to give his companions a message of encouragement and hope, as well. “I urge you to keep up your courage,” Paul said, “because not one of you will be lost.” The ship may be destroyed. We will run aground on an island. But not one of you will lose even a single hair from your head. And what a wonderful exhortation that should be for all of us, as well. For even when the winds of strife may be their strongest, and we can’t even begin to see the end of it all, that’s when we need to take courage and be confidant in the promises of God, trusting that God is still in control, no matter what the circumstances around us might suggest.

Charles Tindley understood that. The son of slaves, he taught himself to read and write at age 17. Worked as a janitor while attending night school until he could earn his divinity degree though a correspondence course. And then in 1902, he became the pastor of Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the church where he earlier been the janitor. When he died thirty years later, that church had 12,500 members. Charles Tindley is best remembered, however, for two of the songs that he wrote, one of which became the basis for the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” But the other one is even better known– “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

At least according to the forecast, the days ahead show every sign of being challenging ones. But don’t give up, no matter how long the storms may rage. Instead, keep calm and carry on. Let us claim that word from Paul, in fact, that not one of us– not one of us— will be lost to the One who knows us the best and yet loves us the most. For in the words of another wonderful old hymn, the “wind and waves still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.”



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