Reflections on a Servant

This morning, we awoke to the news that evangelist Rev. Billy Graham passed away. He was 99.

Graham leaves behind a ministry legacy that will stand, perhaps, in the United States along with Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr., as a transcendent leader of the faith who influenced more than just the church. In time, his legacy will also stand with the likes of John Wesley, John Calvin, and others for making a contribution to the faith that will go beyond their time and place to benefit of the global movement of the church.

What was Graham’s legacy? He leaves no system of theology nor did he provide a different or needed perspective on the church’s orthodoxy (right beliefs). What he did, instead, offer was a reach that is beyond comparison and a message of grace that was received by millions.billy-graham-presidents

According to The Associated Press, Graham reached more than 210 million people during his ministry with his last revival coming in 2005. That is the equivalent of just a little bit more than the entire population of Brazil (207 million). Thanks to modern technology and means of transportation, no other pastor has had that kind of ministry influence.

Graham was known as America’s pastor, but I remember him most living out this role as the pastor to presidents. He had interactions with every president from Truman to Obama. He counseled and prayed for them. Sometimes these interactions would catch Graham in trouble, as was the case in 2002 when comments he made about the Jewish community to President Nixon were released when all of the Nixon tapes were made public.

That moment allowed the world to see another side of Graham. His humility. Graham quickly apologized for the comment and asked the Jewish community to consider his relationships with them and not his misguided comments. His humility was also on display, later in life, as he reflected on his involvement in the civil rights movement. While Graham eliminated segregation from his revivals prior to Brown v. Board of Education ended a practice that was truly wrong, Graham did not use his voice and platform as strongly as others in his time would have liked. Graham once told The Associated Press that he should have gone to Selma.

Another side I appreciate about Graham was his willingness to work across denominational lines. Too often we can get caught up in the Protestant or Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, divisions and only stick with those “who believe like me.” Graham was willing to go and share with people from across the globe and denominational alliances recognizing that God is in more places than we often give the Lord credit.

One of the great attributes we all long to hear is the words of Matthew 25:23, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We often wonder and assume people will hear those long-desired words. I don’t think we have to assume about Graham.

Truly, well done … good and faithful servant.

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Why I Love Ash Wednesday

I remember the first time I saw someone wearing ashes on their forehead.

I was sitting in my high school in Shady Spring, W.Va., when a classmate came to school wearing a cross made of ashes. I had been attending church since I was old enough to “borrow” the microphone from the preacher as a young toddler to have my voice heard during a church event, but I had never seen the practice. It was shocking to see on Ash Wednesday, which to me at the time was just another day on the calendar.

That was this and this is now. What was once a day of shock has become one of the days of the Christian calendar I have grown to love and, more importantly, need. Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day in the Christian calendar that marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We will gather at Ogden Memorial United Methodist Church at 6 p.m., for a time of worship, prayer, and reflection. And, yes, we’ll participate in the imposition of ashes.2247136630_4cab566160_b

Now, I am sure you are asking yourself this question: What purpose does wearing ashes do for a Christian? Good question! I’m glad you asked.

To answer this question, we have to get to look at why we need Lent. In our increasingly secular world, Lent is a practice that gets lost very easily and misunderstood. We’ll reduce it to a practice of merely giving something up than about a time to truly reflect on who we are and whose we are.

Lent is a season that runs for 40 days (not counting Sundays). It begins on Ash Wednesday and runs until the evening of Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and reflection as we prepare our hearts to receive the good news that Jesus is alive.

Our practices surrounding Lent go back to the earliest days of the church. When communities of faith began to form throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, the weeks leading up to Easter was used to prepare new converts for baptism. It was a time of teaching, reflection, and prayer that would lead to an individual’s baptism on Easter morning.

Lent is about reflection and renewal our lives and community. That takes us up, now, to why we need Ash Wednesday. This holy day is all about reflection and renewal.

We reflect upon our humanity. This day reminds us that life is precious. As I look at my own life and the communities I’ve had the pleasure of serving, this is something I believe we all struggle with. We have a hard time with death and the fleeting nature of life, because it is a topic we ignore in our conversations. Our conversations typically turn to our families, jobs, and sports. Seldom do we engage conversations about death and the limits of life beyond funeral services.

Our inability to talk about our humanity limits our conversations about some important topics. It’s hard to talk about conserving our resources, for instance, if we are unable to recognize that we are only here for a short period of time and how there are people who will come after us. At the same time, it’s hard to even deal with grief if we are unable to talk about what death means for each of us.

Ash Wednesday, and its imposition of ashes, reminds us we are humans who were created by a loving God. Truly, as Genesis 2:7 reminds us as dust we came, as dust we will return.

This day also reminds us to seek renewal in our hearts and lives. The imposition of ashes, in scripture, was a sign of sin and mourning. Jesus says if people would have recognized what had been done in other places they would have placed ashes on their bodies (Matthew 11:21).

Ashes provide a visible connection to our human nature and sinfulness. It is a way to encourage spiritual reflection of our hearts and to contemplate who we are, our actions, and God’s desires for our lives. Ashes also remind us of our need of God’s grace and prepare us for deeper moments of reflection to come throughout Lent as we move towards the cross and the empty tomb. On this day, and season, we yearn to turn away from a life of disobedience and seek a life defined by God’s love.

It is why I love Ash Wednesday, because I need this day. I need this day, because I need that reminder of God’s love and desires for me, my family, my church, and the world. I need that reminder of my humanity and my call to care for one another.

So, if you see someone wearing ashes today I hope you will not have the same reaction I did 20 years ago. My prayer is it will lead you to reflect on who you are and whose you are in God’s love.

Living With Joy

The Super Bowl is a cultural spectacle. It is the only championship game where you will have more non-fans or marginally interested people tune in to watch the festivities. The game is almost a side attraction to the entire event and day.

You have the six-hour pre-game show. You have the halftime show. You have the commercials. I think more than anything else it is the commercials that non-sports fans will take away from the game. Were they funny? Were they relevant? Did they make you want to buy what they were selling?

This year’s Super Bowl commercials were of the typical variety. You had some that were emotional. You had some that were innovative. You had some that you wished never were aired. And, of course, you had some that were absolutely funny.

For my take, none were funnier than a commercial featuring the iconic Morgan Freeman. The short spot featured Freeman dance and lip sync to a Missy Elliot song while trying to promote “Mountain Dew Ice.” Extra points for anyone who watched the commercial and could remember exactly what Freeman was advertising.hqdefault

Several days after the game and I cannot get the commercial out of my head. I’ve watched it a few times since on YouTube. It is a great commercial. When you watch it you can feel Freeman’s sense of joy. It radiated through Freeman’s performance as he walked from the fireplace to the middle of the floor while trying to keep up with the lyrics. He was enjoying life.

What I love about the commercial, as well, is that Freeman is 80-years old and will soon be 81. Age is truly just a number for Freeman. It was not going to prevent him from enjoying life and living it out.

I don’t know about you, but when I am 81 I want to have that kind of zeal for life. I believe that kind of zeal is what God desires for us. I believe God created us to be people of joy and love who do not allow things like the number of years of our life or our own beliefs of what we can and cannot do keep us from living with a sense of joy.

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 9:2, “I will be filled with joy because of you. I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.” I read that and hear God calling us to find joy throughout life, to find ways to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually active, and to inspire others with our sense of joy that comes from the Lord.

You are never too old to live with joy. You are never too old to find a way to inspire others. You are never to old to love God and share that love with others. The question becomes what does that look like when you’re 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90? It is going to look different throughout the ages, yes, but it doesn’t mean we stop looking for joy or serving God simply because we’ve hit a certain age. God doesn’t call us to give up on finding joy in our lives simply because we are not comfortable with our age.

Life is best when we are living it to the fullest for God with joy no matter what age we are.