Saturday, December 30, 2017

Love Wins

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A few years ago we took a winter's train ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. The train delivered us to a city split at the Georgia/Tennessee state line - McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee. We stepped of the train to sight see and grab some lunch. We were not prepared for what we encountered - a man standing on the street corner screaming hellfire and damnation to everyone that walked by. I was perplexed how he was so certain that everyone stepping off the train, men, women, children, and elderly were such lowlife sinner scum that we needed to repent or burn in the eternal fires of hell. As we got almost in front of him, he turned towards me and screamed at the top of his lungs, "Do you know Jesus?" I smiled and replied, "As a matter of fact, I do." It did not phase him as he continued screaming from his memorized script. My inner being wanted to grab him and scream back, "Do you realize how much damage you are doing? Do you realize you are pushing lost souls even further with your screaming rant?" But I didn't. We crossed the street heartbroke knowing that anyone hurting and lost who encountered him would not for a moment decide they wanted to learn more about Jesus love and forgiveness for them.

I have a well meaning friend who devotes a great deal of time and effort to denounce Andy Stanley because as he explains, Andy doesn't preach the "truth". I find his claims far from the actual truth as I have listened to Andy for over 17 years and know that Andy preaches that Jesus loves every soul on this planet and yearns to have a personal relationship with them. My friend's frustration is that Andy doesn't week after week preach that if you are a sinner that you are destined to burn in hell. Instead, Andy grew up the son of a Southern Baptist preacher witnessing first hand the throngs of people that have chosen not to seek a relationship with a God the local church has presented as a ominous judge waiting to strike us all dead. Andy set out to create a church where the unchurched would want to walk in the door. A safe place for the person who regularly declined entering the door of the staunch cathedral, because they were certain they were so sinful and bad the building would burn to the ground if they walked in the doorway. Andy realized that Jesus much like any other fisherman didn't try to clean his fish before he caught them. I've set and watched lives changed in front of my very eyes. People who I walked along side of while they listened weekly to messages Andy preached. People whose hearts were softened by a message of love and grace. People who decided to take a faith journey and whose lives have made 180 degree changes and relationships healed and strengthened as a result.

I think the man screaming hell, fire, and brimstone and my friend who wishes to be Andy Stanley's judge and jury would both quickly be able to quote John 3:16 for you:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

But I have to wonder if either could quote verse 17:

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

Yes, the Bible clearly tells us the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but God loved us so much knowing we would never be good enough to live without sin, that He sent Jesus to die as the final sacrifice for us that we might have hope and life abundant. 

It would seem to me that if the church, the guy screaming at the street corner, and my friend wanted to see lives changed, they would embrace John 3:17, would welcome the sinner, the prostitute, the drunkard, the drug addict, the homeless, the forgotten, the marginalized with open arms and shout "You are loved. The God who created everything values you, and your life has purpose."

In Luke 15:25-32, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son who one day walked up to his father and demanded his inheritance. He then burned through it in a short period of time and became desolate and broken. He awoke sleeping in the muck and mire with the pigs and decided the hired help on his father's farm lived better. He set out and made his way home. When his father saw him coming, he didn't stop him at the front gate post and begin to tell him what a terrible son he was and how disappointed he was in his decision making. He didn't condemn him of his sins which were obvious to even the most casual of observers. Instead the father celebrates that he has returned and throws him a feast.  

With Jesus sharing this story, shouldn't we follow the example by making a clear path for the prodigal to find a easy rode to the father and restoration instead of preparing a litany of all their sins and failures and telling them how they don't measure up?

Jarrid Wilson has written a book entitled "Love is Oxygen". In it, he tells of the incredible, inexhaustible and boundless love that God has for all people - the broken, the abuser, the forgotten. If you find yourself struggling to want a relationship with an ominous judge, if you find yourself judging and condemning those who sin differently than you do (and we all sin so get over yourself), or if you find yourself frustrated with pastors that aren't condemning people, I recommend reading this book and perhaps contemplating on John 3:16 AND 17. Because if God didn't send Jesus in the world to condemn us all then who are we to condemn?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Book Review: Confessions of a Funeral Director - How the Business of Death Saved My Life by Caleb Wilde

Sixth generation funeral director Caleb Wilde engages the negative narrative that we all seem to engage when we encounter death. Nursing home and hospitals hide the dead. Families pay professionals to whisk the dead from our sight. We use trite phrases like, "time can heal", "they're in a better place", "You need to move on", "its all gonna be OK", "You will move on", and "It will get better". But Wilde suggests that these worn out platitudes do little to comfort the grieving and by trying to rush them through the grieving period, we do them a disservice.

When the funeral industry tends to quickly swoop into a families home and load up the deceased and shuttle them out of sight to a funeral home for embalming and preparations for the funeral, Wilde discovers that the family is better served by being allowed to have time with the deceased. Time to kiss them on the cheek, time to tell them they love them, time to embrace the loss. Allowed the family  unrushed time before the body is removed from their home provides the family the opportunity to have time and space for to address what they are feeling as opposed to being told to bottle it up and quiet their tears. 

For years nursing homes quickly shuttle the deceased to a secluded room near the back of the facility and have the funeral home enter through a back door and wheel the body out of site believing that a "back door policy" prevents residents from being reminded that death happens in their facility. In contrast, Wilde tells the story of a nursing home that shocked him when they informed him that they had a "front door policy". Once he had the body of the deceased on the stretcher, they provided him with an "honor quilt" the staff had made to signify wrapping the body in love and care. When he began to roll the stretcher from the nursing home room to the front door, the staff lined the hallway in honor and respect. By their actions of engaging death in a positive manner with respect and honor, the nursing home staff had reversed the negative narrative acknowledging death to be a natural progression of life and honoring the life of the deceased.

I found the book to be enlightening, encouraging, and changed the way that I view death.

I highly recommend this book for everyone as we all cope with the death of friends and loved ones, and learning a better way to engage death and finding hope through the process is helpful to us all,

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Dark Side of The Land of The Free

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In Tahlequah, Oklahoma outside of Tulsa, a few weeks after Thanksgiving I met Tony. His ancestors originally lived in the Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina area along with about 125,000 others in the early 1800s. But many of their new neighbors that had moved into the area became jealous of the land they occupied and wanted it for their own. Their neighbors managed to convince their state governments and even then President Andrew Jackson to transfer thousands of acres of their land to white cotton farmers.

In 1831, President Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to evict the Choctaw Native Americans from their land and forced them to walk - some bound in chains and shackles - to the land west of the Mississippi River during winter without food or any assistance from the U.S. Government. In 1836, the President ordered the Army to force the Creeks from their land as well. Of the 15,000 that began the walk to Oklahoma, some 3,500 died on the way. The President then set his sites on the land of the Cherokee Nation - my friend Tony's ancestors.

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After seeing what had happened to the Choctaw and the Creeks, a group of self-appointed representatives for the Cherokee Nation began negotiations with the U.S. Government. In 1835, these representatives signed the Treaty of New Echota trading the the Cherokee Nation's land east of the Mississippi River for $5 million, assistance with relocation, and compensation for their property. Approximately 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation signed a protest to the treaty as it was not initiated, agreed to, nor signed by the leadership of the Cherokee Nation.  The U.S. Congress denied the protest and approved the treaty. By 1838, the government decided they were not satisfied that only 2,000 of the 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation had relocated. President Martin Van Buren ordered the U.S. Army to speed things up. 7,000 soldiers led by General Winfield Scott forced the Native Americans into stockades while neighbors from the white community raided and looted their homes. The Army organized a march forcing the Cherokee Nation to walk the 1,200 miles to Oklahoma. 5,000 died along the way. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and the state systematically began forcing the Cherokee to smaller and smaller plots of land than they had been originally granted in the forced relocation.

In the years since, the Cherokee Nation has worked to buy back its land in Oklahoma. As Tony drove us around and pointed to different parcels of land and noted, "We just bought that back." or "We are buying that back." I couldn't help but struggle to understand how a nation of people could be repeatedly forced off their land without just compensation. And then to have to purchase the land back struck me as an insult.

As I talked with Tony, I could sense his pride in his people and his respect for the elders. He works coordinating teams to replace roofs and install wheelchair ramps on homes of elders and those struggling to get by. As he talked about the work, I could sense his pride in making a positive difference in his community. I never sensed any hostility and anger for how poorly his ancestors had been treated, but a genuine interest in improving the lives of those around him. As I traveled home, I thought about his heritage, the unjust suffering of his ancestors, and his humility. I hope that I can learn from his example.