What on earth is Jesus doing in the world? Commentary on Jesus news.

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Location: Irondale, Alabama, United States

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Despair and Hope in a Merciful God

Seventeen year-old Roger Holyfield stepped into an intersection in Jerseyville, Illinois, clutching a Bible and shouting, “I want Jesus!” Approached by two police officers, he refused to respond, and became combative. A stun gun intended to subdue him resulted in his death. There is speculation that he might have died of excited delirium, which may be brought on by mental illness or drugs.

Any way you look at this story, it is a tragedy.

Tragic death has been on my mind lately. A little over a week ago, my friend Perry took his own life. I was shocked and sad. I knew that he had suffered from depression, but I apparently didn’t know how unbearable it had become for him.

I know firsthand how things like depression can change your thought processes if untreated, because I also have battled depression in my own life. I know that because my brain does not produce serotonin, medication is the only thing that stands between me and despairing thoughts. This is in spite of the fact that my life is good, and rich, and fulfilling. I am surrounded by a loving family, co-workers and church family.

The mind is a mystery.

When I was in graduate school, I worked at a local mental hospital as a course requirement of Abnormal Psychology. While there, I met Effie. Effie was probably about 70 years old, and she had been hospitalized for about 50 years. She would look at you with despairing eyes and say, “I’m going to hell, aren’t I?” If you tried to engage her in any discussion, she would keep repeating, “I’m going to hell… I’m going to hell.” I felt helpless in the face of her despair.

I don’t understand what happened to Roger, or Perry, or Effie. I am thankful that I believe in a God who is far more merciful than we could ever be. A God who loves us more than we love ourselves. A God who hurts with us, cries with us, and offers us the gift of hope. That is the God I want to spend eternity with.

I’m writing this on All Saints’ Day. Today, we remember those we care about who have died, and we commend them again to God.

I hope Roger has found peace.

I hope Perry has found peace.

I hope Effie has found peace.

I hope you and I will someday find that peace “that passes all understanding.”

Monday, October 30, 2006

Jesus goes to work in Jackson, Mississippi

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”

Jesus, in Mark 10:45

“I by my works will show you my faith.”

James, brother of Jesus, in James 2:18

God bless the churches of the Jackson, Mississippi, Ministerial Association! Last Saturday, they joined together for a day of work during which they picked up trash, painted rooms, planted flowers and did other service projects around Jackson. The event, known as “Sharefest” is about “putting faith into action and spreading the love of Jesus to everyone in the community. The story can be read in Sunday’s Jackson Sun. This year’s Sharefest came on the same day that some 3 million people nationwide participated in “Make a Difference Day,” which was created 15 years ago by USA Weekend magazine.

What the What the Jackson churches did is some of the best “Jesus news” I’ve read in a while! I have seen first-hand the power of service in the name of Jesus Christ. When I was a youth pastor, I started the tradition of an annual youth mission trip. Over the years, I have accompanied youth groups who worked in hurricane relief following Hugo, Andrew, and Katrina and flood relief along the Mississippi River in West Alton, Missouri, rehabilitated homes in Biloxi, Mississippi and St. Petersburg, Florida, and did repair work at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home.

These youth groups impacted hundreds of lives for love of Jesus. What is more astounding, however, is the difference it has made in the lives of the youth who went, and in the churches who sent them. In one church the youth mission trip was the pivotal event in turning the whole church toward mission work and thereby helping to bring about a spiritual rebirth in that congregation.

Engaging adults in hands-on mission is more of a challenge. Time constraints and aging draw adults to view mission as giving money. Giving money is vital to mission work, but if that’s all a congregation does, it can remove the human contact that creates the experience of serving. Is the experience of serving important? Well, I notice that at the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t tip the waiter to wash the disciples’ feet… he did it himself.

Projects like the one in Jackson put faith into action, and we need more of that! As volunteer Eugene Brandt put it, “I think it brings joy to the heart of God.”


Friday, October 27, 2006

Jesus, Take the Wheel

Two things happened.

First, I was flipping channels across the wasteland that is television. Was it the tune that made me stop? I found myself pausing at CMT and heard for the first time the strains of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” This past week, the song was named the ASCAP Country song of the year. It’s message so struck me that I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

Hear anew the words to the song:

Jesus, take the wheel

(Carrie Underwood)

She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati
On a snow white Christmas Eve
Going home to see her Mama and her Daddy with the baby in the backseat
Fifty miles to go and she was running low on faith and gasoline
It been a long hard year
She had a lot on her mind and she didn't pay attention
She was going way to fast
Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass
She saw both their lives flash before her eyes
She didn't even have time to cry
She was sooo scared
She threw her hands up in the air

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can't do this all on my own
I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I'm on
Jesus take the wheel

It was still getting colder when she made it to the shoulder
And the car came to a stop
She cried when she saw that baby in the backseat sleeping like a rock
And for the first time in a long time
She bowed her head to pray
She said I'm sorry for the way
I've been living my life
I know I've got to change
So from now on tonight

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can't do this all my own
I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I'm on

Oh, Jesus take the wheel
Oh, I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I'm on
From this road I'm on
Jesus take the wheel
Oh, take it, take it from me
Oh, why, oh

(reprinted from

The next thing I knew, the youth at my church had put together a “human video” around the song, performing it in our worship at Irondale United Methodist Church, just outside Birmingham, Alabama. Once again, the message pierced straight through me.

It is the message of repentance and surrender.

Two events that yielded three insights.

First, I realized that we live lives that need repentance. Repentance: that turning back to God; that turning away from the things that drag us down, threatening to destroy us. I don’t mean that we all live lives that are hell-bent on our own destruction. But, in the course of life we find that with negligence Jesus slips from the center. I find myself getting sucked into the gray areas that consume us in my un-centered, or rather, de-centered life. Repentance helps me to reclaim the conviction that God is not just “out there” but is also “in here,” infinite, yet caring for even me. Caring for the struggles I am going through. Loving me even when I fall and fail.

Second, I realized that repentance is not something that I can do on my own strength alone. I can’t forge myself into the person God wants me to be by force of my own sheer will. Try as I might, until I learn to surrender to what 12-step programs would call my “higher power” I will remain trapped in a frustrating, despairing cycle of trying to live up to God’s righteousness. Recognition of the need for repentance in my life carries with it a realization that I am starved for God’s grace. I experience that grace when I open myself to let Jesus “take the wheel.” My prayer of “Thy will be done” becomes a conduit for God’s grace to flow through my veins like some spiritual IV.

Third, I realized that repentance is not something that you do just once and that’s the end. Repentance is a way of life. It is a way of beginning each day acknowledging that there is a God who loves me and desires the best for me. And that in desiring the best for me, God desires a constant turning, a constant re-centering in my life.

As I write this, I’ve just come home from the hospital where they’ve apparently found that I do not have cancer… My fears at the outset were replaced with a sense of peace as I sat waiting for anesthesia to take effect. As I placed my life into Jesus’ hands, I somehow knew that Jesus was lovingly present with me and that come what may, Jesus would be there for me.

And that today, and tomorrow, and the next day, Jesus would be there for me, waiting for me to turn toward him again, to re-center.

Thank you, Jesus.

For today, help me to turn to you. To re-center my life around you. To hand you the wheel.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Tree limbs on a Jesus statue spell out God's love

Every now and then, you come across a story where people see images of Jesus (and sometimes Mary) in an odd, mundane place... in a skillet, a stone, a brick, whatever. My first inclination is to react with incredulity at the wishful thinking of the person seeing the image. Until, that is, I started thinking about the meaning behind the vision.

The story that caught my eye this past Thursday was about tree limbs. Following a snowstorm in Buffalo, NY, Georgianna Verrastro was surprised to find that tree limbs had fallen across a statue of Jesus behind the local Catholic school. The story was reported across the wire services, including in the Washington Post. Verrastro "told a TV station that her home didn't suffer any damage or lose power during the storm, and that she believes the nearby Jesus statue is proof that a higher power was watching over her family last week."

Admittedly kind of a tabloid story. But, like I say, I started thinking about the meaning of such a story.

The fact that she was able to notice something like this shows that Georgianna was actively looking for the presence of Jesus in her life. Seeing, she found affirmation that Jesus really does care for her.

What difference would it make in my life if I began each day by saying, "today, I want to see a sign from Jesus that he loves me, cares for me, and is watching over me." I might begin to see a whole range of things differently... events, situations, and even relationships. I might begin to respond as one who is confident of God's love, enabled to step out in faith, risking for the sake of the Good News.

Maybe we all need to be watching for fallen limbs.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Consecrated Virginity, Judgment and Salvation

Lori Rose Cannizzaro, made Associated Press headlines last week by dedicating her virginity to Jesus, joining some 200 women in the US and 2,000 worldwide. You can read the article and you can learn more about about the Association of Consecrated Virgins. What is striking is not that she would do this, but that it would be reported as something odd if not shocking.

The article does little to explore Lori’s spirituality beyond a couple of quotes, like “it is a good and holy thing to want to be in a virginal state.” Nor does it look into the theological reasoning of the Roman Catholic Church in promoting this ascetic practice. Instead, we get a vague suggestion that her decision is based in some sense of personal failure: “dating wasn’t working… I wasn’t connecting.”

Such an attitude says a lot about our culture; a culture in which virginity is more likely to be viewed as a handicapping condition than a state of purity. The message of much of our media to teenagers is that virginity is something that should be lost as soon as possible.

I wish I had waited. I confess that I did some foolish things when I was in college, and that was one of them. I could get into a whole other discussion about how our sexuality finds its fulfillment in the covenant relationship of marriage, but that’s for some other day.

Here is the thing. While Lori’s dedication may be unusual, it is commendable these days that someone would dedicate anything to Jesus.

Just as striking in the article about Lori was a statement she made and the response it drew. The article closes with this statement by Lori: “the consecrated virgin is living now what all people will live in eternity before Christ.” In the comments section, Rebekah reacted to the apparent suggestion that everyone will live in eternity before Christ, insisting that God as “perfect and just” will never forgive those who have sinned. She cites Matthew 7:21, “not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ will get into the kingdom of heaven.

I don’t know if Lori really meant that everyone (believer and non-believer) will be saved. What struck me, though, was that Rebekah reminded me of how eager we are to be the ones who determine who gets saved and who doesn’t.

I hear this issue in my discussions with church members. We seem to be pretty sure about who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. Never mind that in Matthew 25 those who went both ways were surprised in the end. Who is to say who will be saved? Only God. What I am grateful (and hopeful) about is that God is far more forgiving than I am.

The bottom line for Christian spirituality is not figuring our where other people are going after death, but rather how will we live our own life seeking to follow our Savior, so we might join him now and in eternity. If consecrated virginity is a means that will help Lori and others in their Christian walk, then God bless her.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Jesus Goes to Camp

The big news about Jesus this week mostly surrounds the new “Jesus Camp” documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Check out to see the trailer and other clips.

LA Times writer Gina Piccalo has written an in-depth article this week that has been reprinted around the Tribune newspapers. It is fairly representative of what is being said.

I haven’t seen the film, and living in Birmingham, Alabama, I’m probably not likely to see it until it comes out on dvd. So, anything I say at this point is only based on the clips and what I’ve read. Kind of reminds me of a book I read back in July, The Secrets of Judas by James M. Robinson. The book, about the recently reconstructed and translated Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text from roughly the same period as other texts unearthed at Nag Hamadi, Egypt, weighed in during the height of the National Geographic-hyped “discovery” at Easter. It turns out Robinson wrote his whole book before he ever got to read the actual Gospel of Judas.

I guess I can risk speaking in my own ignorance or naivety…

The Jesus Camp Controversy surrounds the response to Pastor Becky Fisher’s conservative evangelical “Kids on Fire” Bible Camp in Devil’s Lake, ND. Liberals are aghast. Evangelicals are split between an enthusiastic “thumbs up” and a mere nervous “maybe not.” Pastor Fisher stands accused of indoctrinating children into becoming “Christian terrorists.” The horror expressed by critics seems to be based as much on the indoctrinating process itself as it is on the fundamentalist content of that process.

Filmmakers Ewing and Grady had wrote about their promotional tour at the Huffington Post yesterday. They noted how differently the film is being received in the “heartland” from its reception on both coasts.

Now, I would not be called a conservative by Alabama standards, but at the same time I would not be called liberal by NY or LA standards. Personally I condemn fanaticism. I find much of the politics of the Christian far-right repugnant. But I admit that when I look at our culture I find my Christian faith more and more embattled. It is more important today than ever in American history for Christians to know what they believe and why.

Before I was a pastor, I taught and was a researcher in experimental psychology with emphasis on how to teach and how people learn. Now that I am a parent, I am relearning something I taught long ago: parents are never not teaching their kids. One way or the other, you as a parent are indoctrinating your child into something. The only question is “into what?”

It is time that mainline Christianity understands that we must be much more intentional about what we teach our children… about God, about love, about who Jesus is and what Jesus wants from us.

The question every parent of faith must answer is “what will be the legacy of faith that you pass on to your child?