Living in the Now While Waiting for the Biopsy

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I found another spot.  On my way to conduct a funeral Friday afternoon, I glanced in the rearview mirror while at a stop light to make sure I didn’t have anything unsightly on my face, nose, mouth before arriving at the funeral home.

That’s when I saw the spot.  A white mark on my upper lip.  It wouldn’t wipe off. “Rats,” I said to no one in particular.  I’ve seen that kind of mark before – on my arm.  

15 years ago. 

Melanoma.  

The light turned green so I drove on.  At the next red light I took a selfie and sent it to my friend and Dermatologist PA and asked, “What do you think?”  She replied within 5 minutes.  “Come in Monday.”

I went in.  I came out with a biopsied, bandaged upper lip.  

I’ve had two previous melanomas and one squamous cell carcinoma (the wound from that surgery is still healing).  

Now, I wait.  What will the biopsy show this spot to be?

I know the principles of living in the now.  But I don’t know how to live those principles all of the time. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes I don’t.  Right now, for me to live in the now, is a choice. 

It has yet to become an automatic response. 

The “right now” is this:

  • I don’t know the nature of the spot. That’s the fact.  So why worry about something that may not be?  Why let a fear of tomorrow rob me of the fun I can have today?
  • I feel good. At least until the anesthesia wears off!  
  • I have great care from the dermatology team.
  • I have this moment.  Right now.  That’s all I’m guaranteed. So, I will make this present moment, standing here typing and drinking from a straw, looking at Denise across the room, the best moment ever. 

I will live by Calvin’s philosophy when he says to Hobbs, “We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.” 

 

Yes, We Will All Die.

I have a funeral today, Wednesday, March 2, 2022 – Ash Wednesday.  This will be the third funeral I’ve conducted this week.  

I face death regularly.  It’s part of the job.  Some humorist has said that the job of the pastor is to “Marry and Bury.” It’s a life of dealing with the “wed and the dead.”

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of death. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are meant to represent dust.  When receiving ashes on their foreheads, they hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).  

Thanks, but no thanks, for the reminder.  We don’t like to be reminded of, to think about, death.  So we say just about anything to avoid saying the d-word:

  • Kicked the bucket
  • Six feet under
  • Bought the farm
  • Pushing up daisies
  • Passed away
  • Restin in peace

I get it.  Death is hard to face.  So to help us face it, we actually wear the reminder on our face. 

And that reminder is a good thing. Knowing that I will die motivates me to live a fuller life.  

After a funeral, I’m typically:

  • more “alive” – more aware of the beauty of all around me and its fragility.
  • more grateful
  • kinder
  • more affectionate
  • more loving
  • more here, now. 

My senses are sharpened.  Living with an awareness of death can make my living more loving. 

We don’t like to face death because we fear the loss brought by death. Yes, there is loss, but there is also gain.  “To die is to gain” (Philippians 1:21), Paul reminds us. It’s a trade. And it’s a trade up. 

So, I’m off to this funeral.  And I will return to a fuller life. 

A Lesson From My Mom on Martin Luther King Jr Day

As I celebrate the life of and lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr today, January 17, I am also thinking about my mom, whose 5th anniversary of her death is in two days, January 19 (I can’t believe it’s been 5 years). In the last 10 years of her life she and I had several conversations about social justice, as I was growing ever more passionate about the marginalized and justice issues. She expressed more times than I can count her regret over not participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 7, 1965.

Her regret was deep, sincere, palpable.

In March of 1965 mom was a 31 year old mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 2, and one son, me, age 8, and a busy pastor’s wife of a growing Southern Baptist Church – which is a full-time, unpaid job. It’s understandable that she did not, could not, march.

“Phillip,” mom said to me, “I did not march. You can.”

Mom left me with a resolve to have no regrets…to do what I can to create a world driven by love and justice for all.

In response to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963, Billy Graham said, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”

Talk about a dream killer. If that’s true, why march? Let’s just sit and wait.

Mom didn’t believe that to be true. I don’t either.

I dream for a just, loving world. I will work to make the dream come true.

No regrets.

Thank You George Harrison

Yesterday, November 29 was the 20th anniversary of George Harrison’s death. The
Beatle had been suffering from a brain tumor and had been treated at a clinic in
Switzerland in the summer of 2021.


George was known as the “quiet Beatle” during his time with the Fab Four. Maybe the
press gave that name to him because John and Paul talked the most in interviews. I don’t
know. But, John and Paul as the song-writing super couple were the most visible of this,
my favorite band.


George brought to them and to us a deep spirituality – one of kindness.
Ringo tells about the last visit he had with George before his death. His visit was cut
short due to his own daughter’s health challenges: Lee Starkey was suffering a brain
tumor.


Ringo said in an interview:
“The last weeks of George’s life, he was in Switzerland, and I went to see him, and he
was very ill, you know, he could only lay down. And while he was being ill and I’d come to
see him, I was going to Boston, because my daughter had a brain tumor.”


When Ringo told George about his daughter, he said, “Well, you know, I’ve got to go, I’ve
got to go to Boston…and he (George) goes – it’s the last words I heard him say, actually –
and he said: ‘Do you want me to come with you?’”


What a friend.


After telling this story, Ringo wiped away a tear and said, “So, you know, that’s the
incredible side of George.”


George often said, “Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and
love one another.”


Words to live by.


George Harrison, you may have been “the Quiet Beatle” but we still hear you.

Lessons In The Leaves

Leaves

I spent this afternoon engaged in a typical fall activity – raking, mulching, bagging leaves.  I did it all. While doing so I thought of a couple of “Lessons in the Leaves.” 

The first lesson was “Gratitude.”  Gratitude has never been my response to the chore of “leaf maintenance.”  I’ve been grateful for the brilliant red leaves falling from our maple trees creating a soft carpet on our ground – until it was time to bag those leaves.  Then my gratitude quickly turned to complaining.

But not this year.  For some reason, each sweep of the rake brought with it a breath of thanks…

Thanks for the beauty of the leaves.

Thanks that I’m still able to rake and bag. 

Thanks for the change of seasons…

How’d I make a switch from griping to gratitude?  I wish I had a simple recipe to share. I think it’s just about being present.  “What is there right now that shows me the beauty of love?  The beauty of God?”  

Which made me think of the second lesson: Change.

Things change.  Seasons change.  I change.  You change. Methods change.  Theology changes.  I may have lost you with that last one…

It’s a common understanding of conservative Christianity that theology never changes.  Progressive Christianity understands that theology is fluid, never static.  

I guess that makes Martin Luther a progressive.  We celebrated last week on October 31, not just Halloween, but the beginning of the Protestant Reformation – the day Martin Luther nailed or mailed his 95 thesis to the church in Wittenberg Germany.  

Martin Luther and the other reformers – re-formed – the church’s theology.  

They changed it.  Drastically.  

Yes, theology has changed.  Is changing.   Will change.

That fact scares some people.  I get that. I mean, where do you stop changing? It’s the slippery slope argument.  Change is hard because the things we are asked to let go of have been important to us.  It was hard for Peter to let go of the Scripture’s prohibition against eating certain foods.  Yet, who can deny that God changed?  At least God changed his word (Acts 10:9-16).

There are things I believe today I didn’t believe a few years ago.  And there are some things I believed a few years ago that I don’t believe today.  How about you?  I wonder if a lack of change reflects a lack of thought?  That was true for me.  

One thing hasn’t changed:  Love.  

I wonder if the way to tell if one’s theology is “right or wrong” is to observe if it leads or doesn’t lead to being more loving?  Paul is talking theology in Galatians 5 – the theology of circumcision.  For centuries the theology on circumcision was set – Any true follower of God had to be circumcised.  Period.  

But Paul’s theology changed. And he challenges others to change, to allow love to shape their theology:   “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6).

If my theology doesn’t make me more loving, maybe I need to change it.  Maybe I need to change me.  

Changing leaves.  Changing theologies.  Changing people.  

A Call to Love in a Culture of Hate

Shootings

I went to bed Saturday night after having read the news of the shooting in El Paso, Texas.  I awoke Sunday morning to news about another shooting in Dayton, Ohio. As a pastor, I felt a responsibility and an urge to talk with the Sunday morning congregation about the events. It wasn’t planned.  It wasn’t part of the “order of service” that had already been set and sent out to the team.  

 

But neither had we planned on these shootings.

 

So, before I arrived at Sunday Morning Venues, I wrote these thoughts and then shared them during our services:   

 

Today we mourn over our country that has once again witnessed the evil of hate. 

We grieve over the state of our land. 

We humbly open ourselves to the real possibility that we have ignited  the flames of hate. As James writes, “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire.  A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell”  (James 3:5-6).

We confess our sin. 

We long for the day seen by the prophet Isaiah and fulfilled in the Christ we see in Jesus, when, “Violence will disappear from your land; the desolation and destruction of war will end. Salvation will surround you like city walls, and praise will be on the lips of all who enter there (Isaiah 60:18).

We express our hope.

As children of God we accept the call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

We renounce every expression of violence.  

Violence of the tongue.  Violence of the gun.  

Violence in the heart.  Violence with the hand.  

Violence with a post.  Violence with a text.  

Instead, today, our mouths will speak blessings not cursings;  love not hate. (James 3:9-10).  

Today, …our feet will move to spread the good news of peace (Isaiah 52:7). 

Happy MLK JR Day

stick-with-love

I so appreciate what  Martin Luther King Jr. did…

… and the way in which he did it – through “enemy love.”

In June 1956 (the month and year of my birth), a federal district court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional; the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in November 1956.  It just blows my mind that it took our court system to right such a wrong as racial segregation.

The Montgomery Improvement Association sent the following letter outlining how people should conduct themselves on the newly integrated city bus system.

bus-letter

Sound familiar?  Have you ever read or heard anything like that?  Go back and read it again.

Quite the contrast to what we see and hear today.

Let’s continue the work.
Let’s continue in the spirit in which the work was done.

 

“Fear Will Be Your Ememy”

images

We tend to do that. To hate what we don’t understand.

It starts with fear.

We fear what we don’t understand. So…

We criticize it.

Or we dismiss it.

Sometimes, we smash it.

We see it in history:

After the last Amtrak accident, people may be a bit skittish about riding a train, but it’s nothing compared to how people felt in the 1820s with the invention of the steam locomotive. Anti-train propaganda warned that the human body would disintegrate under the stress of traveling at the unfathomable speed of 20mph. It was feared that men would asphyxiate, and women would suffer a more violent death due to their more fragile assembly.   Stay away!

We see it literature:

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Jem, Scout, and Dill don’t know Arthur Radley (Boo). They only know what people say about him. They believe what they hear and in their minds, they make it reality.  A scary reality.

“Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him.” Page 10

“People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows.” Page 10

“Boo was about six-and-a –half feet tall, judging from his tracks, he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood stained.” Page 16

By the end of the story, Boo is no longer a man to fear, but a man who is a friend.

We see it in TV:

Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” aired “The Gift” April 27, 1962. In the story, a space alien, who calls himself Williams, crash lands his rocket in Mexico. He has come to earth to give humanity the formula for a cancer-curing vaccine. He should be getting the red carpet! Right?

But before presenting his gift, he’s killed by some local soldiers. Led by fear and hate, they not only kill the visitor but also burn the document that contains the cancer curing formula.

The closing line from the episode: “We’ve not just killed a man. We killed a dream.”

Rod Serling, in that bewitching voice, offers this epilogue:

“The subject: fear. The cure: a little more faith.”

What is the cure for our fear of the unknown?

For Rod Serling, the cure is faith.

For Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win the award in two different fields (physics and chemistry), the cure is understanding: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

For Roman historian, Livy, the cure is knowledge: “We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.”

From John the Apostle, not the Beatle, the cure is love: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear for fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

The chief troll had it right when he told Elsa, in the movie “Frozen”, “Fear will be your enemy.” The fear that froze Elsa and everyone around her was thawed by the sacrificial love of her sister, Anna.

Do you think the sacrificial love of Jesus will do the same for our fears and us?

Where is the Love?

Where-is-the-love

When I hear the above question, I automatically start singing the song by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack recorded in 1972 –

Where is the love

You said you’d give to me

Soon as you were free

Will it ever be?

 

Nice love song.

I also go in my mind to The Black-Eyed Peas version from 2001.

Bit if you only have love for your own race

Then you only leave space to discriminate

And to discriminate only generates hate

And when you hate then you’re bound to get irate, yeah

Where is the love, the love, the love?


Powerful song.

Non-Christians were asked for a one-word description of Jesus.

And the survey says, “LOVE!”

 

They’re right!   Jesus told his followers that God’s will for all humanity is summed up in two commands: Love God and Love your neighbor. Jesus went on to say that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. Then Jesus takes this love thing to a crazy level when he says that we are not just to love our neighbor but we are to love our ENEMIES!

When Jesus tells us the one thing that identifies us as His followers…

That one thing is Love.

Not doctrine.

Not a belief.

Not dogma.

Convicting words.

Non-Christians were asked for a one-word description of Christians.

And the survey says, “Judgmental!”

 

Are they right?

Barna’s research seems to say so… Check out this article – 87% of 16-29 year olds say Christians are judgmental.

Ok, so Christians have an image problem. We’re viewed as way judgmental.

But is it an image problem or a real problem?

In another Barna studyDavid Kinnamon, said it’s real:   “Many Christians are more concerned with what they call unrighteousness than they are with self-righteousness. It’s a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns.”

 

Jesus’ approach was just the opposite. Check out his story in the 4 Gospel accounts. You’ll notice that Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or people guilty of the “typical” sins. The only people Jesus judged and got ticked with were the religious folks for their judgmentalism, self-righteousness and failure to love.

The weird thing is this: the people who claimed to know and follow God better than anyone else ultimately killed him when he showed up.

The above Barna study revealed that 51% of American Christians polled have attitudes and actions that are more like the religious folks (the Pharisees) than they are like Christ. Based on the Barna research, here is what today’s Pharisees say:

  • “I tell others the most important thing in my life is following God’s rules.”
  • “I don’t talk about my sins or struggles. That’s between me and God.”
  • “I try to avoid spending time with people who are openly gay or lesbian.”
  • “I try to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.”
  • “I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church.”
  • “I find it hard to be friends with people who seem to constantly do the wrong thing.”
  • “It’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves.”
  • “I feel grateful to be a Christian when I see other people’s failures and flaws.”
  • “I believe we should stand against those who are opposed to Christian values.”
  • “People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.”

What’s missing from the list? Love. Where is the love? In Jesus.

To sum it up, let’s do what we hear in the last verse from The Black Eyed Peas:

Now, you gotta have love just to set it straight

Take control of your mind and meditate

Let your soul gravitate to the love, y’all, y’all

Let’s Not Miss What Matters

bonhoeffer

 

I just finished Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh. I’ve always been a fan of Bonhoeffer – everyone in the evangelical world is, right? He’s a hero, our go-to guy.  “Would you like to know what a committed Christian looks like? Go to Bonhoeffer. Would you like to know what it’s like to follow Christ no matter the cost? Go to Bonhoeffer.

 

Theologian, poet, pastor, professor, a guy who dressed like he just jumped off the pages of GQ – oh, and dissident, spy, and martyr, who was executed for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. See? A hero!

 

Maybe you’ve read his classic, The Cost of Discipleship. If you haven’t read the book but you have attended an evangelical church sometime since 1980, you’ve more than likely heard it quoted by a pastor of said church.

 

For as long as I can remember anything about Christian authors, Bonhoeffer has been at the top of the evangelical heap – portrayed as the voice of evangelical values. Such was the position in another popular biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. In an interview for his book, Metaxas said this about Bonhoeffer, “I have to say, with unbounded joy, I discovered him (Bonhoeffer) to be the most straight-up, theologically orthodox believer I have ever encountered. He is as theologically orthodox as St. Paul and Isaiah!”

 

Not so fast. Experts on Bonhoeffer came out of the woodwork to contradict Metaxas’ perspective. Even a fan of the book, Tim Challies, admits that these experts “may well be right in suggesting that Metaxas got in over his head and they may be right in suggesting that the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me…”

 

What does the “true Bonhoeffer” believe that doesn’t fit with the “likes” of some? Here’s a sample:

 

*In a lecture in 1928 Bonhoeffer stated that the Bible is filled with material that is historically unreliable.

 

*In discussing the first three chapters of Genesis in Creation and Fall (1933) Bonhoeffer criticized the idea of verbal inspiration and stated that the biblical author was restricted by the state of knowledge when it was written.

 

*In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer presented a series of lectures on “Christology.” Later, his good friend Eberhard Bethge published the notes under the title Christ the Center. In that writing, Bonhoeffer said this, “It is through the Bible, with all its flaws, that the risen one encounters us.”

 

What do we make of these views? What do we make of Bonhoeffer in light of his views?

Do these beliefs knock him down a notch or two?

Do these beliefs negate his role as a “go-to” guy?

Do these beliefs change his love for Jesus and people; his passion to follow Him fully?

 

Tylor Standley, in a blog post carried by Relevant Magazine, asks these questions:

What does it mean to be evangelical?
What must you believe?
What must you reject?
He then lists other “heroes” of the faith who like Bonhoeffer may be cut from the evangelical team because of their theological views and positions.

 

You’ll recognize some of them – Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, even Billy Graham.  Maybe you’ll be surprised by the views of some of them.

Maybe we all will realize how easy it is to miss the essence of Christianity – to miss what really matters.

 

It was Christmas, 1934. a 28 year old Bonhoeffer preached a series of sermons on  1 Corinthians 13 -the Love chapter.   Speaking of doctrine and the churches of Germany, he asked, “Is it not obvious? They have not made people who love. It does nobody any good professing to believe in Christ without first being reconciled with his brother or sister – including the nonbeliever, his brethren of another race, the marginalized, or outcast … In the end everything must become love…perfection’s name is love.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer got it.  I hope I do too.