It Keeps Popping Up

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. Joseph Campbell 
The last episode of the latest season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ends with one man giving his life to save the world (and the woman he loves). That man, Lincoln Campbell (played by Luke Mitchell) is an inhuman (a human being with enhanced powers derived from the fact he has become part alien) who has the ability to manipulate electrical charges. Among the many sub-plots of this season that tell stories of sacrifice, the major plot-line is the most powerful. Daisy Johnson, the one Lincoln loves, played by Chloe Bennett, is gripped with guilt over those she used her special powers to hurt during the time she was brainwashed by the evil force in the world named “Hive.” (“Hive” sorta sounds like “Legion” in the New Testament, that overwhelming demonic force that showed up in great numbers and destroyed a man’s life.) The “Hive” of this story intends on destroying the whole world by robing people of their humanity and creating legions of zombie-like creatures willing to serve him. Because she served “Hive” for a time, Daisy is so racked with guilt she can not forgive herself and she absolutely refuses to accept forgiveness from her team when it is offered to her.

As evil as “Hive” is, he seems also to be indestructible. The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are no match for him. The whole story turns as one agent, the newest agent of all, Lincoln, realizes that he can destroy “Hive” at the cost of his life. Lincoln can take “Hive” into space and detonate a bomb on the ship that will destroy them both.

It is a touching scene as Daisy realizes what Lincoln is doing for her, for the team, and for the whole world. Here is part of her last exchange with Lincoln as the craft heads into space:

Daisy: It should be me to fix the damage to my friends, to you. You can’t just die for me like this. It’s wrong.

Lincoln: Saving the girl that I love and the world at the same time. Feels pretty right to me.

Within a few moments, communication falls silent. The ship is in space away from the earth’s atmosphere. There it explodes, destroying “Hive.” The world is saved by sacrificial love..

Joseph Campbell would love Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because it retells a story he found in cultures all over the world. Campbell was a mythologist known for studying the great stories of the world. He found an amazing story repeated in diverse cultures, even in those that had no contact with each other. His explanation of this meta-myth is found in his little monograph entitled: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The story he found so oft repeated tells of a hero, one who saves his people. All of these stories are filled with wonder and heroism.

Campbell’s works begs the question: why do so many cultures tell the same story? Why does this story resonate so deeply in the human heart? Why do we love this story?

I believe our hearts love this story because it is the story all of us are living in. We need to be rescued. Our world needs to be saved. Evil appears so powerful we find it hard to believe it can be destroyed. We are no match for it, really.

It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien (writer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and C.S. Lewis (writer of the Chronicles of Narnia) were talking about the “myth” that seems to be repeated in culture after culture. It keep popping up. During that talk, Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that, yes, the story of Jesus was a myth like this, but this was the time when the myth actually happened in human history, not just in a story.

Yes, it actually happened. A hero appeared, entered into our world, and took death upon himself to redeem us. Not just. Fairy tale, but a flesh and blood savior. Jesus.

For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

This latest season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. powerfully shows the lure of happiness and pleasure, the grip of addiction, the deep guilt of sin, the paralyzing prison of shame, and the power of sacrificial love.

Transforming Victories

Christian love aims beyond “this world.” It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all “conditions” of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which “lies in evil,” the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. Alexander Schmemann, in Great Lent

schmemannThere are times when I doubt the power of love and grace. I don’t think I’m alone. I doubt it when violence springs up in airports and train stations. I doubt love’s power when conflicts seem intractable and endless. I doubt it when more people are hurt, and become afraid. I doubt that there is any love strong enough to pierce the darkness of it all.

I think that is how we must feel as this week, Holy Week, progresses. As we walk with Jesus who arrived in Jerusalem out of love as the religious leaders conspire to take his life. Jesus is willingly giving it up, laying down his life. Perhaps, we must feel hopeless to let such love in.

That is what happens as Jesus goes to the cross. He puts love to the test. Is love strong enough to provide forgiveness for the worst that we can do? Is love enough to staunch the flow of wrong and bring healing in the face of generations of division? Is love stronger even than death?

Jesus’ answer is the cross and the empty tomb. The cross shows us that there is no place God will not go to love. The empty tomb proclaims the victory of love, God’s love, and it invites us to live this new way of love that can only come from Jesus. This is the love that can love one’s enemies because we were God’s enemies and he loved us. This is the love that lives beyond death because Jesus came from the grave.

Who am I?

 

Perhaps, you heard the news that Pat Conroy died last week in his native Beaufort, South Carolina. Pat deserves mention because of his popular searching novels such as South of Broad and the Prince of Tides. Like me, you may love the southern reflections in his work:

Pat ConroyI would like to walk his southern world, thanking God for oysters and porpoises, praising God for birdsongs and sheet lightning, and seeing God reflected in pools of creekwater and the eyes of stray cats. I would like to have talked to yard dogs and tanagers as if they were my friends and fellow travelers along the sun-tortured highways, intoxicated with a love of God, swollen with charity like a rainbow, in the thoughtless mingling of its hues, connecting two distant fields in its glorious arc. I would like to have seen the world with eyes incapable of anything but wonder, and a tongue fluent only in praise. ― Pat ConroyThe Prince of Tides

Pat died of pancreatic cancer. His last Facebook post drew my attention:

I celebrated my 70th birthday in October and realized that I’ve spent my whole writing life trying to find out who I am and I don’t believe I’ve even come close. Pat Conroy

I love the honesty of Conroy. How many of us share that feeling?  The project of our lives has been to discover who we really are. We use our relationships, our vocation, all of our energies for that singular purpose. Our lives are journeys of self-exploration. One wonders if Conroy is not, by creating and developing his characters, by noodling out their stories, really exploring his own passage, the tide of his own life.

As human beings we have long lived with this question. The Psalmist asked: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Solomon explored his identity by attempting to unravel the meaning of life. John Calvin opened his opus The Institutes with two parallel statements:

There is no knowledge of yourself without the knowledge of God.

There is no knowledge of God without the knowledge of yourself.

Calvin tied these two together more closely than bread and butter, up and down, salt and pepper. You cannot have one without the other. Perhaps, that is the fly in the ointment of our present world. We want one without a willingness to consider the other. Even Jean-Paul Sarte said:

No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.

So, who am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with this from his captivity in a Nazi prison. He wrote tellingly what he discovered. In part, he said:

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat…

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others…

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Seeing his own life, Bonhoeffer cannot answer the question of his own true identity. He sees the mess of all he has been. It is only in God, being God’s, that his life is rooted, that he can know who he is. Whoever I am, I am yours.

In Praise of Repentance

I confess that I did not raise a finger for civil rights. I was taught (sic) with one thing, and that was to start a new denomination, for the sake of the scripture, for the sake of the preservation of historic Presbyterianism, and for the furtherance of the gospel proclamation. And so I confess my sin.

I’m not confessing the sin of my fathers, I’m confessing my sin, and of those twelve men.”

Dr. James Baird, spoken at General Assembly

This past week I had the privilege of attending the 43rd General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America.  GA is a collection of elders from presbyterian churches from across the country.  For a number of years, I did not enjoy attending GA. It seemed that the procedures and rules for this annual meeting had long ago eclipsed the real purpose for such times together. Granted our meetings need to be orderly, but something had been lost.  I think it was the living nature of a communion of believers falling on their knees together to cry out to God together, to seek his face for life, and to rise up with a renewed sense of mission in the world.

Screenshot 2015-06-16 18.27.10I’d been avoiding GA for years when a friend exhorted me to attend.  I, for one, am glad I did. During the assembly, a personal resolution came forth from two Mississippi pastors calling the denomination to repentance over the sins of racism and an unwillingness to stand together with African American sisters and brothers in their distress.  The resolution was heartfelt and well crafted.  But, the assembly stumbled over the process of moving forward with it.  It was the final meeting of the assembly when Dr. Jim Baird, one of the PCA’s founders, rose to his feet to speak.  The assembly, about 900 elders present at the time, fell silent as Dr. Baird cut through the procedures with a clear and beautiful confession of sin. No excuses were given. There was not a trace of minimizing.

I sat in my seat and wept.   Not because he was a founder of the PCA.  Not because he was a former pastor of Granada Presbyterian Church where I now serve.  Not because this fixed the injustice of the past.  No, it was because it was true, a true word, a real and living confession before God.  Repentance.  I believe only God can grant real repentance.  We can’t work it up. We don’t produce it on our own. And, when it comes, we can only step back and say, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.”

Thankfully, a new procedure was not invoked.  Instead, the moderator called the assembly to prayer, and what Dr. Baird started continued as fellow-elders rose to join a chorus of confession and repentance.  I think this is the first real assembly of the church I have attended.  Others were business meetings, it is true. But, what is to happen when the church meets together? We appear before each other for sure. We also appear before God. I believe this is what happened, and this gives me a deep hope that a corner has been turned, if but a small one.

The good news in this is that it was just a beginning.  I heard elders and pastors talking about how to take this work of repentance back to their churches and presbyteries.  I heard others speaking about “producing fruit in keeping with repentance.”  All of this sounded to me like life, the presence of God and the power of the Spirit of God.

Years ago when I first came to Granada, my mom gave me a very nice leather journal, one I felt was too nice to use for the normal daily journaling I do much of the time.  How could I use it?  I decided to record in it those things I saw that were clearly works of the Spirit of God.  Surely God is at work in all things, but I wanted to keep a record of things that I could find no other earthly explanation for, works of God among us.  You’d think the journal would have been filled long ago.  But, sadly not. Perhaps, it is my lack of vision or flawed perspective.  For whatever reason, many pages remain blank.  Immediately, I knew I needed to write this down, and thank God.

I hope you will do that with me.  Thank God.  And yes, confession. It is not a one-time event.  It is a life of sensitivity to the holiness of God, a life honest about one’s sins and the deep need for what only God can provide.  Please pray with me that this repentance will flow like a mighty river bringing many to their knees, that our sisters and brothers we have failed will forgive us, and that God will teach us how to love one another.

Pray for Baltimore and Nepal

Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky)

Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky)

Two scenes have unfolded in the last week or so.  We need to pray.  First, the on-going unrest in Baltimore.  We have a number of sister churches in the City of Baltimore.  New Song Church is pastored by Louis Wilson.  The rioting has literally been a stone’s throw from this congregation in the neighborhood called Sandtown. Many in the church knew the man well who is an the center of the controversy.  On morning following a night of destruction, pastors and members of our sister churches filled the streets and sidewalks to help clean up the area. It was a bueatiful display of loving service, pride for the community, and solidarity. The people of Sandtown, though poor, are extremely proud of their community.  Now the violence has extended further into the city and it has affected communities with three other sister churches of ours. Please pray for the pastors and elders of those churches, and for peace and healing in the community.

Nepal EarthquakeFrom our foreign mission agency- Mission to the World: MTW: Help Victims of Nepal’s Earthquake!
 As you have no doubt seen on the news, a massive earthquake devastated Nepal on Saturday, April 25, 2015. More than 3,200 have lost their lives and thousands more are injured and homeless.
Our national partners are experiencing the devastating effects of the earthquake firsthand. Eighteen people died while gathered for worship in one of our partner churches. Another partner church, though damaged itself, has become a temporarily shelter for 150 community members who’ve lost their homes.  In Nepal we partner with national pastors who oversee churches, children’s homes, two schools, and a home for widows.
These pastors are helping to grow the Church in Nepal. Now we can step forward to serve them.
First and foremost—please pray for our friends in Nepal. Then, please consider an online donation to help meet critical needs in the wake of this disaster.

Thank you for loving and serving the Church in Nepal.
New donations address:
MTW  Donations
Project 93943, Nepal Earthquake
PO Box 2589
Suwanee, GA 30024-0982

A Call to Joy

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. – Romans 14:17

When we came home from traveling to South America this January, I was left with an impression I couldn’t shake.  I think I began feeling it one morning after talking to a Polish man on our ship during a day at sea.  This man asked to share a table with me at the breakfast buffet. Right away, he began to open up with me as if we had known each other for a long time.  (Or, perhaps he was opening up with me because he knew he would never see me again!) He explained that he had owned and operated two hotels on the west coast of Florida.  He grew tired of the work, and retired.  He explained that he and his wife take four to six long cruises a year to most anywhere.  The destination did not matter to him because he rarely gets off the ship. Instead, he uses his time to play blackjack.  Here is what struck me most about this man: he had all the resources and opportunity to have an immensely enjoyable life, but he was profoundly unhappy.

jjThen I began to see this pattern with many others we met.  They were “living the life,” but joy was entirely absent.  I started people-watching when we returned home, especially observing faces.  I began asking: what emotion do I see?  Is there contentment?  Happiness? Joy?  I saw worry, anxiety, concern, boredom.  Only for brief moments did I see flashes of happiness.  Then I remembered what Sigmund Freud said in his Civilization and Its Discontents.  He said that human advances have made us almost godlike, but we are not happy.

These things that, by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth … not only sound like a fairy tale, they are an actual fulfillment of every–or almost every–fairy-tale wish. All these assets he may lay claim to as his cultural acquisition. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience, which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes… Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself… But, present-day man does not feel happy in his godlike character. – Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents

This struck me as true.  We have gained so much, but in the end our faces are downcast.  Where can we find joy?  That’s what set Christians apart from the very beginning.  They manifested a remarkable and sustaining joy the world had never seen.  Where did it come from?  That is what we will be exploring in worship for the next month.

Before we get started, I invite you to share in the practice of people-watching, looking for signs as you read people’s faces that give a hint to what they are feeling and experiencing.  In addition, note how you are feeling as you go through the day.  Take a few moments to gauge how you see life: are you hopeful and encouraged?  Is there contentment? Is there joy? Then bring your experience along as we start this journey together.

Departure Day – Santiago

valdiva santiago

Pedro de Valdivia in Plaza de Armas

We were booked on a red-eye flight back to Miami.  That gave us the entire day to spend in Santiago. We heard that a free city walking tour begins each weekday in Plaza de Armas.  The literature said to meet in front of the Santiago Cathedral right at 10am.  We were skeptical but decided to go and check it out.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a twenty-something man wearing a red tee-shirt with large lettering advertising “Free City Tour” on it.  He allowed people to gather for about 15 minutes before leaving.  He provided us a map and told us that indeed the tour was free.  At the end, people would have the opportunity to give him a tip for his services. Nothing more was asked.

He was immensely knowledgable about the city and the history.  The first stop was right in Plaza de Armas.  Our tour guide explained that in opposite corners of the plaza were statues revealing the conflict of the earliest days in Santiago.  In one corner of the plaza Pedro de Valdivia rides his horse as if in victory. But, if you look closely, there are no reins in his hand. While he was the first governor of the new settlement of Santiago in 1541, ultimately he was defeated by the Mapuche Indians who destroyed the city and killed him.  So yes, he seems to be riding in strength, but he is not holding the reins of power or history.

Mapuche statue in Plaza de Armas

Mapuche statue in Plaza de Armas

At the other side of the plaza stands a stone statue of a Mapuche. The broken stone well expresses the experience of the Mapuche people who lived in brokenness through the colonial period continually fighting to preserve their land and heritage.  The fighting between the parties never really ended. Every people battle for place and significance, to protect what is theirs. This was the perfect place to start the walking tour and to learn the early history of the city.

From there our guide took us through the streets past the Pre-columbian Museum of Chile.  Sadly, it is closed on Monday, but it is a “must see” to take in the early history of Chile and the native peoples from Peru to Patagonia.  Around the corner from the museum were two cultural curiosities.  First, there is “the Rapid” sandwich shop that is the native fast food of Chile. (You can see a youtube video of what they do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaVOC6wT5zE ).  They serve sandwiches and empanadas, and yes, they do it very quickly!  Next door you will find Cafe Haiti. Remember, we learned that the people of Chile like sweet drinks! This makes selling coffee difficult.  The solution: they have established coffee shops around Santiago that our tour guide called “Coffee with Legs.”

Screenshot 2015-04-07 15.09.20These coffee shops have no places to sit. Visitors drink their coffee standing up.  You may wonder: how can coffee have legs?  The servers are beautiful women who wear outfits that show a lot of leg, hence the “Coffee with Legs!”  This is a new wrinkle on Starbucks baristas! Now of course, the way things work, there are more progressive coffee houses that show even more than legs, whose windows are darkened.  These are the lengths to which some will go to sell coffee in Chile!

From the museum area we walked through the financial district.  Our guide told us how the country changed under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1981.  He was swept into power following a U.S. backed coup against Salvador Allende, the socialist president elected by the people.  Apparently, the U.S. was concerned that in Allende they might have another communist country like Cuba arise in the backyard.

wall street chilePinochet and the military stormed the presidential palace in September 1973.  Allende committed suicide before he could be taken into custody. Early on Pinochet decided to reform the economy of the country.  Inflation in the early 70s had been 1000%.  He sent the “Chicago Boys,” about a hundred male Chilean economists, to the University of Chicago to learn how to create a market economy. They returned to bring about what has often been called the “Miracle of Chile.”  Pinochet provided them key positions in and outside of government so that they could reproduce an economy that reflected the U.S. The result was an increase in wages, and in general, a raising of the standard of living in Chile. Even today, Chile has the strongest and most stable economy in Latin America.

Here’s what was most interesting to us. We heard impassioned speeches from both sides of the Pinochet debate.  We heard people speak of the people he had killed to clear the decks for change in Chile. More than 1/2 million were arrested or detained at various times during his rule.  The nation lived for years under a curfew that meant you could be shot or arrested if found outside at night.  Then we heard people praising the advances Chile made during his dictatorship.  Even today, the people of Chile remain greatly divided over this man. Ultimately, he lost power in an election.

palaceInterestingly enough, the current President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, is enacting policy that Allende had proposed all those years ago!

From the financial district we walked to the Presidential palace.  It is called La Moneda because the national mint is there.  We could see where the army arrived and the bullets flew when the coup took place. This is a very important place to visit to understand the modern history of Chile.

From the palace our tour wound through the streets of Barrio Lastarria, the place we visited the day before.  Passing through Bellavista, we were given an explanation of the favorite native foods of the people of Santiago. Our guide was kind enough to show us a few places we could get authentic food to sample.  We returned after the tour ended.

Sandy trying conger stew in Bellavista!

Sandy trying conger stew in Bellavista!

The last stop on the tour was the home of Pablo Neruda. He is the poet-diplomat of Chile and beloved of the people.  He has a number of homes in Chile, and this one on the outskirts of Bellavista belonged to his mistress that he later married.  The house is part history and part shrine to this man.  His words captured the hearts of the people of Chile when he was quite young because he brought together the common and the sublime.  For example, he wrote a now-famous “Ode to Conger Chowder.”  Conger chowder is an eel stew much enjoyed in Chile!  He also wrote an ode to his socks. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  His poems capture life as the people know it, but then add a beauty and familiarity that makes life experiences of every day more enjoyable.  Of course, he also wrote about the country he loved, politics and much more.  His writing has left an indelible impression on Chile. Each of his homes have nautical themes as he loved everything about boats and the sea.

Before our tour ended we tipped our guide, and also pumped him for information about the neighborhoods of Santiago.  Following our visit to the Neruda house and at the end of the tour, Sandy and I retraced our steps to a restaurant in Bellavista where we could sample the Conger chowder!

barrio brasilWe did not have much time before catching our flight home, but we wanted to follow a lead our tour guide had given us.  He recommended we take the metro to Barrio Brasil.  We emerged from the metro to this beautiful community built over a hundred years ago by the wealthy of Santiago.  The buildings retain their historic character, but some have fallen into disrepair.  This was the reminder we needed as we prepared to fly home to Miami. Each generation must love the city for it to be sustained and for it to thrive.  We see that with our city as neighborhoods change and as the city grows.

Along the way, God was reminding us to love the city he has placed us in, to invest in the developing of culture and tradition and life.  We came home longing for a growing sense of culture at home, and desiring to love and serve the city by contributing in the ways we can.

We were glad to be going home but appreciative of all that we had the chance to experience.  We were enchanted by the beautiful people and the culture of Latin America and we were looking forward to the day we could return.

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