A Personal Meditation: Embrace the Cross

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On the Worshipers Path at the Community of Christ Temple

Introduction

It is probably not surprising that on this Thursday before Good Friday my personal reflections are focused on the meaning of the “passion week” of Jesus Christ. Below are the thoughts that emerged today as I considered the meaning of the cross.

My Reflections

When Jesus announced that the way he had chosen to respond to God’s call would lead to public ridicule, suffering, and death, his disciples vehemently protested. Their hope for who he was and how he would accomplish his mission did not include public embarrassment, suffering, and death. I suspect they also began to wonder about their own fates if they continued with him.

Suffering and death sounded like weakness and defeat. Peter was so offended by the idea that he chastised Jesus for even entertaining such thoughts. Sometimes even those who think they are closest to Jesus just don’t get it.

After responding fairly sharply to Peter, in essence Jesus said to his disciples: “You simply don’t know how God really works. God works through sacrificial love that does not know any limits. Not even death can stop it.”

Then he uttered the words that have become one of the foundations of the Christian faith. “Whoever will come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34-36).

What does that statement really mean for me?

I don’t think Jesus is talking about literal death on a cross for most of us, although more than a few disciples over the centuries have literally sacrificed their lives for the cause of Christ. Could I? Would I?

When Christ said that we must take up our cross and follow him, I think he was mostly speaking of an inner, ongoing, spiritual transformation. He was speaking of a process of dying to an old way of being that is characterized by self-centeredness, fear, and hate while being born into a new way of being that is grounded in the love, generosity, and peace of God.   

How do I do engage in such spiritual transformation?

I must journey with Jesus to the cross and embrace his experience there. Embrace the cross and it will reveal eternal truth that will redirect, heal, and transform my life.

If I embrace God’s continuing revelation through the cross my life situation and direction will be clarified. I begin to see aspects of my life that run counter to God’s will and eternal purposes.

The cross confronts me with the truth that I am a participant in the misdirected human condition that reacts to the message and mission of Jesus Christ by killing the messenger. And, then it dawns on me that there are particular aspects of my life that deny Christ’s vision for creation that includes healthy and righteousness relationships grounded in God’s love, justice, and peace.

There is need for continued confession, reconciliation, and transformation. The cross cuts through the fog of illusion of self-righteousness and clarifies the real condition of my life.

But, as soon as I better discern the condition of my life, and desperately cling more tightly to the cross, I experience liberating truth. The cross does not speak condemnation to me although some continue to use it to try to condemn others. It speaks compassion, forgiveness, and healing. The suffering love that flows from the Creator’s heart through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ embraces me with the eternal grip of grace.  

But, I sense that this is not cheap grace that easily allows me to slip back into life as it was before. This is compelling grace that seeks my changed life for engagement in a divine cause. The call is to take up Christ’s cross—my cross— and daily follow Jesus Christ.

The cross not only reveals the condition of my life and the compassion of God, it sounds Christ’s call to give myself completely to his mission of proclaiming the liberating truths of the gospel, demonstrating God’s expansive love through compassion, and embodying Christ’s whole vision through justice and peacemaking. 

The paradox and transforming truth of the cross is captured in the teaching of Jesus—that if I am trying to find my life through my own efforts, aspirations, and strategies, I will ultimately lose it. But if I continue to lose my life in Christ I will find life beyond my wildest expectations.

In surrender and taking up the cross of Christ there is ultimate freedom.

From Kirtland to Japan and Back

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Photo by John Weese

This past weekend Cathi and I were in Kirtland, Ohio to participate in activities related to the 175th anniversary of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.  Saturday, we shared in the Daily Prayer for Peace in the historic Kirtland Temple. Our prayer included concern for the nation of Japan and our Japanese church members.

As we prayed in the Kirtland Temple, I somewhat emotionally recalled the experiences we shared in Japan last November when we were present to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the church there.  I saw in my mind’s eye the faces of the children in the nursery school, the teachers, the parents, and our church members in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Did you know the Kirtland Temple is the place from which the international vision of church mission was launched?  In June of 1837, Joseph Smith Jr. turned to Heber C. Kimball in the Temple and called him to go on the first “overseas” mission for the church.  Kimball was set apart a short time later for that mission in Sidney Rigdon’s home across the street. He was soon on his way to England to open up the work of the church in Europe. It was from the Kirtland Temple that our movement toward an increasingly culturally diverse membership began.

In 1959 at a High Priest Conference, Roy Cheville stood in the same pulpit and commissioned Blair Jensen and Charles Neff to take the gospel to Asia. Cheville recognized the power of sacred story and place and connected the beginning of the Orient Mission to the beginning of the Europe Mission 122 years earlier. Soon thereafter, the Neff family moved to Japan.

The church’s experience in Japan and other East Asia nations enlarged and enriched our budding international church family. It also transformed our understanding of the gospel in significant ways that have helped us be more relevant and effective in our ministry in many other places throughout the world.

Last week I communicated by email with one of our church leaders in Japan. In response, she expressed her sorrow over the destruction and loss of life resulting from the massive earthquake and tsunami that wreaked havoc on her beloved homeland. She also talked about the general unease and growing concern about radiation leaking from the damaged nuclear reactors.

Japan is a nation that knows firsthand about the long term effects of radiation.  The atomic bombs dropped on Japan produced immediate mass destruction. But the effects of radiation sickness continued for generations.  It must be extremely difficult to think about how the current nuclear crisis may impact adults and children for many years into the future.

My Japanese friend emphasized her deep appreciation for all of those in Community of Christ who are praying for the nation of Japan.  She also expressed appreciation for the financial assistance Community of Christ has sent via Mercy Corps to provide basic necessities, such as shelter, for displaced families.

Let us not passively observe events as they continue to unfold in Japan. Let us pray individually and together in our congregations for the safety, healing, and peace of Japan and for our Community of Christ family there.  And let us be reminded, once again, that in Christ there is no East or West or North or South.

Remembering the Mothers of Abobo, Ivory Coast

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To help church members understand the world-wide concerns of the church, I often tell them that when watching the news they should remember that anything happening in the world most likely is impacting church members.  Recently, the sad news from the Ivory Coast brought that point home to me in a particularly disturbing way.

Children in one of our Ivory Coast congregations (Paul Davis.2010)

My first trip to Africa as the new field apostle included visiting Abidjan, Ivory Coast. We shared in worship, classes, and fellowship with church members there. At the time, we had one congregation in the Abobo area of Abidjan. We now have three congregations there.

I remember with fondness the hospitality, vibrant spirit, and enthusiasm of our members in support of the church’s presence and mission in Ivory Coast. It was in Abobo at the conclusion of a worship service that the whole congregation, including me, spilled out into the street dancing and singing with joy about the good news of the gospel. 

One of our churches in Adobo

It was also in Abobo, on a later trip, that I had a kidney stone and the members helped me find the medical help I needed, which, unfortunately, was far away from the impoverished conditions where they lived.

If you have been following the news lately, you are aware that political unrest in Ivory Coast over the last three months has erupted in violence in various areas, including in Abobo.  The local U.N. peacekeeping mission has reported that over 200,000 people have fled the area out of fear for their lives.  And, they certainly have good reason to fear.

Last week in Abobo, thousands of women were protesting Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down as president after he lost an election several months ago, despite international pressure to do so.  Gbagbo’s security forces moved into Abobo with tanks and starting shelling and shooting at the women. Seven women were killed.

photo by Rebecca Blackwell (Associated Press)

To understand the true horror of what happened we need to hear from eye witnesses. Women were waving leaves and branches as they chanted—a common African practice—and they were mowed down by gunfire.  Now, there are bloodstains on the street with branches lying next to them where the women had rallied.  

This is a new level of human violence.  Military tanks fired on mothers waving tree branches.

Ironically, last Monday was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a world-wide observance to remember and celebrate all that women have done for humankind. Remarkably, on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, protesters once again took the streets to express their disgust at what had happened to the women of Abobo.

My heart aches for the people and church members in Abobo or wherever they have had to flee.  They are our brothers and sisters; our family in Christ. The church has made arrangements to send emergency relief funds, but our efforts are hindered because banks in the area are closed. Church leaders in Ivory Coast will have to go to Monrovia, Liberia to receive the funds and then go back into the mounting chaos to help our people.  

Pray for the church members in Ivory Coast. Pray for the children whose mothers were killed in Abobo. And, remember that the church’s mission which includes pursuing justice and peace throughout the world is not a “feel good” political agenda as it is framed and dismissed by some.  It is a matter of life and death for people we know and love.

Converting Trout

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Tomorrow, March 1, is the official opening of trout season in Missouri. For fly-fishermen, the official opening of trout season is a sure sign that spring is coming.

I prepared for the official opening of trout season last night by getting out my fly-tying gear and tying two olive “wooly buggers.” For the uninitiated, a “wooly bugger” is a fuzzy green and black striped caterpillar with a tail made out of feathers. I have my suspicions, but I don’t really know exactly what kind of aquatic life the trout think they are seeing. All I know is that it works.  

Unfortunately, I will not be fly-fishing on the official opening day of trout season in Missouri. I will be in a week-long series of World Church budget planning meetings.  However, simply tying the “wooly buggers” last night heightened my sense of optimism that I will be able to go fly-fishing sometime this spring if I survive a week of World Church budget planning meetings!

Now, inevitably, whenever I bring up the topic of fly-fishing, there are those who take a dim view of my hobby. So, in anticipation of writing more in the future about fly-fishing, let me go ahead and lay a few philosophical foundations.

First, one of the primary reasons one engages in fly-fishing is because of all of the beautiful places you get to go. Trout are an “indicator species” who like to live in cool, clear, running water. That is, if trout are in the water, then the water is doing okay.  It is a great comfort to me that there are still places in the world with water clean enough to hold self-propagating populations of trout.  If there are trout in the water there is still hope for the earth. Fortunately, most of that kind of water is in very appealing places.

Secondly, fly-fishing is a deeply spiritual endeavor for those who engage in it. There is something about painting the sky will beautiful loops of fly line and then watching it land softly on the water that stirs the soul to nobler thoughts. Once I fly-fished on a river in a heavy fog and my fly line made the fog swirl in beautiful patterns.

Since before recorded history, water has been associated with the Spirit and fishing with probing the sub-conscious mind and soul to see what you can bring up into the light for examination.  This, of course, is why Jesus chose his first disciples from among the fishermen around him.  They were already deeply spiritual!

Thirdly, fly fishing is transformative for the fish.  You see, trout are the ones doing the hunting and catching. A fly-fisherman presents an imitation of a small insect or other aquatic life (no live bait is used or harmed!) and a trout decides to try to eat it. The trout, which was determined to kill another living creature, is forestalled and lifted into the light by a creature that leaves the trout awe-struck. (It is probably the waders, huge sunglasses, and floppy hat that do the trick!) The trout is netted, unhooked, talked to, and then held in the water until he or she summons the courage and the strength to make a break for it. You see, I only do “catch and release.”

I have been told by other fly fishermen that following such a dramatic experience, trout not only have a story to share with friends, but decide to become vegetarians so as not to ever go through that type of episode again. That is very good news for the other aquatic life forms trout feed on.  

So, this week, I will be doing my presidential duty by attending all the World Church budget planning meetings. However, from time to time during the meetings, I may find myself wistfully thinking about how and where to convert more trout.

Racial Justice Day 2011

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While I was already reflecting on “Racial Justice Day” in the Community of Christ and the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, early this morning brought me to a particular focus. Last night, about 10:00pm, Cathi was called to go down to the Kansas City Hospice House to be with a dear friend who is in the last stages of her courageous battle with cancer. Cathi is scheduled to preach today, and, as she was leaving, we talked about a contingency plan if she was not able to do so. The contingency plan was me.

I woke up frequently during the night thinking about our friend at Hospice House and about what I would say if called upon to preach in Cathi’s stead. I began to reflect on my life journey with issues related to racial justice. I recalled that my great-great grandfather had been booted out of a Baptist church for baptizing a black man, probably a slave. I take some delight in being a descendent of a preacher who did not just go along with popular opinion.

I also thought about how I grew up in a mostly segregated town in Tennessee. I remember when the schools began to be integrated and the palpable tension that filled the air. I recall walking down the hallways at my Junior High School in following years when police officers were present to quell violence between white and black students. I avoided the conflicts by keeping to myself and not going to the bathrooms where most of the violence happened.

My brother, Randy, created quite a stir one year when he invited his black friends into our neighborhood to play football. Funny, the neighborhood kids didn’t have any problem; we just wanted to play football. But, our parents received calls from upset adults who didn’t like what they were seeing. My brother and I took some pride in our minor contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.

As I look back on my growing-up years, I wonder why my brother and I did not embrace the kind of racism that surrounded us. I have come to the conclusion that the answer lies primarily in the vision of the worth of persons and gospel lived in loving community that embraced us through the teachings and fellowship of the RLDS (now Community of Christ) Church. While it was only in later years that I began to sense the full range of human diversity to be included in God’s coming Kingdom, the seeds of a more inclusive view were planted through my church experience as a child and teenager.

A more recent experience also had a profound impact on me. Several years ago my brother and I went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, I think it was one of the last times we shared together before he died.

The Museum tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement all the way back to slave days and forward to today. There are several displays that put you in the midst of the struggle, like sitting at a Diner lunch counter and being told to go to another seat. I was particularly moved and disturbed when I got on a bus and was told to go to the back. Then I noticed a statue of Rosa Parks sitting in one of the seats up front. I had to decide whether to go to the back or sit with her. I sat with her.

At one point I was standing beside a small African-American girl and we were both looking at a display that showed pictures of Ku Klux Klan rallies and that had a used KKK robe and hood hanging there glaring meanly at us. I looked at her and she just stared at the robe. What was she thinking and feeling? I wanted to tell her what I thought, but I decided to just leave her to her own thoughts.

One of the last stops was the actual motel room where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. (The museum is built around and adjacent to the motel). I walked out on the balcony and stood where he was assassinated. Beneath my feet was a new square of concrete that replaced the original blood-stained one. I looked across the street and saw the boarding house from which James Earl Ray delivered the fatal shot. The window was still cracked open just like it had been on that fateful day.

While racial justice progress has been made on some fronts, there is still a long way to go. Racism, along with other forms of discrimination, is alive and well in our society and, sadly, in our church. Today, I recommit myself to being part of the continued struggle for a time when all of God’s children, regardless of race or color, can experience their worth as beloved children of God. On that day, I can go back to that little girl I saw standing before the KKK robe in the museum and say with integrity, “That is all over now.”

The Haiti Earthquake

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While my “to do” list remains long in terms of church leadership strategic and administrative tasks, I find my mind is focused today on Haiti. One year ago, on Tuesday, January 12, a 7.0 scale earthquake devastated Haiti. The destruction and suffering was and is catastrophic.

Temporary worship space

The Community of Christ has a large number of church members in Haiti meeting in about 200 congregations. Obviously, Community of Christ members, along with the general population, were greatly impacted by this tragic natural disaster. Of course, those who follow the international news know that the situation in Haiti has been compounded by the hurricane season, a cholera epidemic, and an unstable political situation. Also, a lot of money pledged to assist Haiti has not found its way to the points of greatest need.

The Community of Christ responded generously to the Haiti crisis through increased contributions to the church’s emergency relief funds (Oblation, World Hunger). I am grateful for the compassionate hearts of church members who respond time and time again to natural disasters that impact our world-wide family.

In the year since the earthquake, we have not only provided emergency assistance, we have begun the process of evaluating and rebuilding church structures. I am especially grateful the Community of Christ minsters who are primarily responsible for Haiti relief and rebuilding are taking a long range view of the situation.

I was watching a series of programs last night on our local Public Broadcasting TV station about the Haiti earthquake. The first program was about the nature of earthquakes. One scientist stated that in his calculations only about 50% of the pressure built up along the fault line near Port au Prince was relieved by the earthquake last year. He went on to say that another earthquake in Haiti, perhaps even closer to Port au Prince, is likely in the future, though it notoriously hard to predict earthquakes.

I share this statement not to create a sense of fatalism about Haiti, but to point out the importance of the church’s very deliberate approach to reconstruction. The church is insisting that all rebuilding be according to earthquake zone codes and requirements that are enforced in more affluent parts of the world.

As a matter of justice and the worth of persons, we are saying that those enmeshed in poverty should have the same protection as those who have more options to protect themselves. You see, in earthquakes, deaths do not occur so much from the shaking ground, but from the collapse of buildings and other infrastructure. While others may be rebuilding more quickly in Haiti, the Community of Christ is rebuilding in a way that will hopefully ensure the greatest safety for our church members and friends and children in associated schools.

I invite the church to continue to be generous through contributions to the Oblation and World Hunger Funds. I also remind you that contributions to World Ministries Mission Tithes are vital because these funds, among other items, help support our Haitian church leaders and congregations and the World Church appointee ministers who are coordinating Haiti recovery and rebuilding.

Let us not forget Haiti in our prayers, advocacy, or in our giving.

Where in the World is Jesus?

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To make sense of what I am about to share (if you are not already familiar with it) you need to go view or read the Advent homliy that I presented last Sunday night at the Temple that is posted on the World Church website www.CofChrist.org/broadcast/121210homily.asp  (Don’t worry, its fairly short). 

After the Advent service I went home and was watching the news on TV. Much to my surprise and delight, a story came on about a town having difficulty keeping its public nativity scene figurines in place, including the baby Jesus. It seems that people liked to “borrow” different characters. Their solution to the problem was to put a GPS device in Jesus so they could track Him wherever he went. Can it get any better? Jesus is on the move so much that we need a GPS tracking device to keep up with Him!

It seems that my homily has also set in motion a number of mischievious activities around the Temple in Independence. For the past several days, I have discovered baby Jesus figurines that are obviously not where they should be. I know this because they have been found resting on my chair, laying on meeting tables, and perched on my office desk. Since the World Church Leadership Council is in town for meetings, I think I can narrow the suspects down fairly quickly.  While I am concerned about getting the baby Jesus figurines back to their orginal owners, I am encouraged to have evidence that World Church leaders are indeed committed to taking Jesus into new places and situations!

I am also very appreciative of  a story and picture I received, also placed anonomously on my desk at the Temple. It seems a nativity scene was placed in a church yard. During the night people came to view the display and what they saw surprised and deeply moved them.

Sleeping peacefully

Evidently, an abandoned dog had been looking for a place to rest. The dog somehow chose the manger with baby Jesus in it as a comfortable, safe resting place. Upon seeing the now living nativity scene, no one had the heart to disturb the dog and send him away. The dog rested there all night actually laying across the lap of baby Jesus. Oh yes, I also need to mention that the dog was a German Shepherd.

There are two thoughts that strike me as I ponder the story and picture. One, I am glad that the dog found a place to rest other than my house, because we already have 3 dogs and 2 cats who have been rescued from their “homeless” conditions. (More on that another time.) Second, I wonder how much better off I would be if I simply curled up and rested peacefully in Jesus’ lap more often, especially during this hectic Christmas Season.

Here is my Christmas wish to all. May the peace of Christ be yours in abundance.

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