Monthly Archives: November 2011

Be Christ This Christmas

There are so many ways that we can be the body of Christ.  The holiday season is a difficult time for so many.  As a Christian, is there any better time to share the love of Jesus than on the day we remember his birth?  So let’s share ideas and be inspired by the ways that we can be Christ this Christmas.  If you are a twitter user, use #BeChristThisChristmas, because our actions speak louder than words.  What are you doing to be Christ this Christmas?

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This idea has been popular on FB, can we get #BeChristThisChristmas to trend on twitter?

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Prayers for Liberia

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Photo taken by Rev. Robb McCoy.

The Illinois Great Rivers Conference and the Liberian Conference of the United Methodist Church have a deep and growing partnership.  I became a deeper part of this relationship in February 2011, when I went with a group of new clergy to Liberia.  The people of Liberia remain in my heart, and my heart has been troubled over the last few weeks.

Prayers for Liberia are needed.  For months people have been looking to October 2011 as a major test of Liberia’s fragile peace.  The wounds of 14 years of civil war are still fresh, and many of the major players in that war are still in positions of leadership in the Liberian government.  The Presidential election of 2011 was basically a three-way race between current President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Winston Tubman, and Prince Johnson.

On October 11 the election saw a voter turnout of 71%.  In that election, it was Johnson-Sirleaf (44%), Tubman (33%), Johnson (12%).  Since no candidate won a majority of the votes, a run-off election was planned for November 8.  After the election Johnson threw his support behind President Sirleaf, essentially ensuring her victory.  Despite the fact that all independent election authorities called the elections fair and transparent, Tubman declared that there was mass voter fraud and disputed the results.

He advised his followers to boycot the run-off election and staged demonstrations across the country which intimidated people from voting.  Some of the demonstrations became violent.  Clashes between the Liberian National Police and demonstrators caused at least two deaths.  The leader of the LNP recently resigned after pressure from President Sirleaf.

In the run-off elections, the turn-out fell to 38.6%, and President Sirleaf received over 90% of the vote.  Tubman’s party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) continues to protest the elections.  They have promised to make Liberia “ungovernable” if their demands are not met.  They are calling for a second set of elections, and seem to be holding the nation hostage with threats of violence.

The situation remains fluid, but there seems to be some signs of hope.  On November 29 there was a Peace and Reconciliation Jamboree.   And the CDC seems to be falling apart.  According to this news article, five influential leaders have been ousted.  From what I have gleaned from different sources, these leaders were the most vocal and were the ones trying to organize the kind of rallies that so often turn violent.  According to this story, the CDC has backed off of plans to have street protests.

All of these stories come from a source called allAfrica.com.  It seems to be a credible source.

There is still relative peace, but the situation is fragile.

Brief summary of the primary candidates in the 2011 election:

Prince Johnson was a primary leader in the civil war.  He gained much notoriety for capturing, torturing and executing President Samuel Doe.  In the early stages of the war, he was an ally of Charles Taylor, but the two ended up bitter rivals.

Winston Tubman is an Americo-Liberian and was a member of the Doe administration.  He was Johnson’s  primary competition in the election after joining with George Weah.  Weah was Tubman’s running mate, and was the runner-up to Johnson in the 2005 elections.

George Weah is probably the most famous Liberian in the world.  In 1996 he won the FIFA Football Player of the Year Award, and was named the African Football Player of the Century.  He ran for President in 2005, but lost in the run-off with Johnson.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been a public figure in Libria for three decades.  She is a Harvard-educated financier, and worked for many years for the World Bank.  Her international and business experience is second-to-none in Liberia. In 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Partners in Hope Video I created after my trip.

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Advent in Two Minutes

This is a great two-minute video that was produced by a Catholic group called Busted Halo.  They have a lot of short educational videos.  The one below is very good.  It explains the relationship between Advent and Christmas pretty well.  I found it by f0llowing @rethinkingyouth on twitter.  The Rethinking Youth Ministry website is a great resource.

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Healing

I love Christmas lights.  I don’t put very many up myself, but I love other people’s (from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.  I’m not so much of a fan of them on Valentine’s Day).  I especially love displays that have well-synced flashes.  I remember as a kid there was a house on our block that always had perfectly neat and straight lights running along their gutter, and they blinked in a way that created a wave.  I thought they were so pretty.  The ones I didn’t like so much were the ones that blinked, and you could could exactly how many strands of lights were strung together because each one blinked at a different time.  It seemed like every once in awhile they were merge and it would look like they were synced, but it was just a trick of timing and pretty soon they would all be random again.

I think our lives are a lot like Christmas lights.  Sometimes it seems like everything is happening at random and there is no way to sort out the mess.  Things are happening, but there is no way to make sense of any of it.  Then there are the times when we are synced up.  There might be a lot happening, but we feel like we can handle it.  I know that there have been times when the Christmas lights of my life looked liked this:

This is an amazing video to watch.  Isn’t it great when our lives feel like this?  When everything just seems to fit.  To me, this is what healing is all about.  Healing is not the absence of disease. It is the presence of order. The source of cure is the chemical compounds that I do not unerstand. The source of healing is the mystery of God that creates order out of chaos, creates light out of darkness, and gives new life to what was once dead.

Healing was a huge part of the ministry of Jesus Christ, and as Christ’s Church it needs to be a part of what we are doing.  Unfortunately in most churches healing is seen either as a money-making gimmick of sheisters, or it is limited to the “concerns” part of the congregational prayer.

I believe we need to reclaim the healing ministry of Jesus.  We need to stop focusing on cure, and start thinking of how Jesus orders our lives.  That amazing light display took hours of time.  It took a central computer to coordinate all of the parts.  All of those blinks and flashes, if seen on their own, would have appeared to be nothing more than a random display.  But since all of those lights were plugged into the central source of power, you get to see this remarkable display.

Our lives are no different.  If we are not connected to the central source of power – the Holy Spirit – we will be nothing more than a collection of random blinking.  When we connect to the power that is offered in Jesus Christ, watch out.  Amazing things can happen.  Much more amazing even, then the video above.

So this Advent season, as we prepare the way of the Lord, let us first prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.  Do as Jesus said, and “Open Up.”  Open up to the power of the Holy Spirit.  Open up to healing.  Open up to forgiveness.  Open up to reconciliation.  Open up to grace.  Open your heart to the power of the Holy Spirit, and watch what can happen.

At Riverside UMC, we will be offering people a chance to open up every Wednesday evening in Lent.  We will come to the chapel with the sacrament of Communion laid out in front of us, and we will open up to the power of the Holy Spirit.  So come every Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. and be healed.

Advent Poem

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Keep Christ in Christmas

I tell people, “Happy Holidays.”  Does that make me any less of a Christian?  I don’t think it does, but apparently some people do.  As we approach the holiday season, I am bracing myself for the onslaught of “Keep Christ in Christmas” slogans on facebook.  I decided to make a preemptive strike, and created this picture.

Happy Holidays

It seems to have struck a chord.  Maybe I’m not the only one that is tired of the righteous indignation of people that think that there is a war on Christmas because a department store puts up a sign that says “Happy Holidays.”

Believe me, I want to keep Christ in Christmas, but I’m not looking for Christ at JC Penny or Kohls.  If I want to find Christ in Christmas I will look to a local food pantry or a wardrobe ministry.  I will look to a homeless shelter or domestic abuse shelter.  If I want to find Christ in Christmas I will go to worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I will sing the songs of the ages, and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  I will invite my neighbor to worship with me, or I will read the Bible and pray.

Nothing can keep Christ out of Christmas if I endeavor to be the body of Christ this Christmas.  So please, spare me the “war on Christmas” rhetoric.

Do you want to know who is waging a war on Christmas?  Do you want to know who is spoiling the birth of Christ?  It is not the people that have the gall to greet you with “Happy Holidays.”  The ones waging a war on Christmas are those that think greed and discrimination are Christian values.   They are the ones that think that performance fleece, ipads, diamond earrings, and flatscreens have anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ.

And before I get too carried away with this rant, let me pause for confession.  I know that I can get caught up in the consumerism of it all.  I enjoy buying presents for my family and my daughter.  I enjoy receiving presents, and am already thinking about “What I want for Christmas.”  I know that I will enjoy a holiday in a warm home with plenty of food, and a few gadgets that I certainly don’t need.  But I’m going to try.

I’m going to try and live simpler.  I’m going to try and seek the true gift of Christmas – the peace of Jesus Christ.  I am going to pray more.  I am going to read more.  I’m going to give a little more.  I’m going to sin, but I’m also going to forgive.  My economic gain or lower prices will come at the cost of another, but I’m also going to do justice.  I’m going to be selfish but I’m also going to show mercy.  I’m going to be very happy if this little picture catches on and goes viral, but I’m also going to try and walk humbly with my God.

I’m going to do all of those things because that, I think, is the true meaning of Christmas.

On twitter use #BeChristInChristmas to share how you are working for the Kingdom of God this Christmas season.

11 Ways to Be Christ in Christmas

Be Christ This Christmas – Another poster for Facebook.

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Congratulations Coach

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, greets Bob Knight after win No. 903

Congratulations are in order.  The coach has just set the all-time mark in victories.  What’s more impressive than the long list of victories however, is the way in which he did it.  Over the last few decades he has done more than win games.  He has molded men with class and dignity.

The coach has been the single most popular figure in the history of the university.  But he has been more than popular.  He is an almost mythic figure that  has created a brand that goes beyond the sports field.  The university is as much defined by his legacy and his sport as it is by any academic endeavor.  He has stood for a strong ethic and moral decency.  In an era when coach after coach goes on to the next big thing, he has remained a stalwart in the community and is an icon in the sport.

All the while, he has never been investigated by the NCAA.  He did it the right way and for the right reasons.  Everyone around him knows that he is about more than his sport.  He is about more than wins and losses.  He is about character, and molding boys into men.  He is about dignity and respect and honor.  For his efforts, he has legions of fans that love him.  They honestly love him.  They name their children after him.  They dream of their sons playing for him someday.

Ousted President Graham Spanier, left, presents head football coach Joe Paterno with a plague commemorating his 409th win

Alas, Joe Paterno will not be coaching anymore because when he was presented with the biggest moral question he ever dealt with, he balked.  He passed the buck.  He missed an opportunity to bring a friend to justice and he failed all of those that ever loved him.   He failed all of those that believed that he stood for anything more than wins and losses and image.  I do not know Joe Paterno’s heart.  I do not wish to be judged by my worst moment. I do not believe all the good he has done is wiped out because of his failure, but I think the Penn State scandal gives us a chance to step back for a moment and hold off on creating mythical figures out of mortal men.

Today, many are pouring adoration upon Mike Krzyzewski.  The last few paragraphs, save the last, could as easily be about him as it was about Joe Pa.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t congratulate Coach K.  What he has done at Duke is remarkable.  It is unfair to Coach K to make any comparisons to Joe Pa right now, but this isn’t about Coach K.

This is about priorities and perspective.  This is about idolatry.  When we turn humans into mythical creatures, we will almost always be disappointed.  The sports world is full of myth.  Sports are full of heroes, villains, gods and devils.  Maybe as sports fans we need to stop.  Let’s stop making these people into more than they are.  Maybe then the next time one fails it won’t hurt so much.

Some may say that I’m being cynical, but I don’t need sports figures to be my heroes.  When I was a kid I loved Walter Payton.  I cheered for him.  I wanted to be like him, but he was never my hero.  My heroes lived in my house.  Let’s all just agree to be grown ups and stop idolizing people because they wear the right uniform or coach on our sideline.  Let’s stop putting our faith into coaches and athletes.

As a Christian man, my faith belongs in one place.  I still love sports.  I love my teams.  It matters to me if the Illini or Bears win or lose. But if sports start to come between me and my family, or me and my God, there’s a problem.  Let’s stop believing that athletic prowess has any relation to moral righteousness, even (especially?) if said athlete points to the sky or bows on one knee in the middle of the game.  It shouldn’t make us love our games any less, but if it does, maybe that’s a good thing.

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Err on the Side of Grace

I’m a pretty safe driver.  I’m a safe driver for a lot of reasons.  One reason is that I hate the idea of getting a ticket.  I’ve gotten pulled over for speeding before, and it sucks.  It’s expensive.  It’s a pain.  You know that feeling you get when you drive past a squad car going a little over the speed limit, and then you look in your rear view mirror, hoping it doesn’t pull out?  I hate that feeling.  This, combined with the simple fact that I don’t want to die, is the reason I drive safely.  I get passed a lot on the interstate.

This photo is used with permission. It was taken by Dave King http://www.flickr.com/photos/djking/

I don’t go exactly the speed limit (partly because the way people drive, that in itself would be somewhat unsafe), but I’m never the lead car either.   I have realized that in the course of driving somewhere, I have to make many decisions.  Should I pass?  Should I wait behind this truck for the exit?  Should I change lanes now?  Each decision usually involves either speeding up or slowing down.  Whenever I’m driving, and I have a decision to make that can be boiled down to this, I almost always choose the option of slowing down.  Maybe it’s not always the best choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb.

“I choose to err on the side of grace.”  A seminary professor of mine said that once in class.  He was not talking about driving.  He was talking about interpreting the Bible.

The Bible can be interpreted a lot of ways.  With any given issue, people of faith can go to the same Bible, pray to the same God, seek out the same Holy Spirit, and come up with very different answers.  Take any issue: homosexuality, immigration, the treatment of the poor, abortion, gender roles, warfare, capital punishment, gun rights, euthanasia, the environment, education, etc. and people of faith will come to very difficult conclusions.

Some try to group these things into neat little packages like liberal and conservative.  I’m not a fan of those labels, or of any labels really.  I think most people are more complicated than our labels.  I know that the world is.

That said, I think my seminary professor was right.  He taught a lot about grace and the Hebrew word hessed, which he translated as “God’s steadfast love.”  When asked once about God’s judgment he said (more or less), “For most issues, people lean either on God’s grace or on God’s judgment.  When I think about those two sides, I choose to err on the side of grace.”

It might not always be the right choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb to me.  I choose to err on the side of grace.  Some may think that sounds wishy-washy.  Some may say that I am preaching “cheap grace.”  I understand if you think that, but I disagree.

I choose to err on the side of grace because I love and respect the Bible too much to narrowly focus on a few verses that do otherwise.  I choose to err on the side of grace even when it is inconvenient, unfair, or unsavory.  I choose to err on the side of grace because when I look at the Biblical story, that is what I see my God doing time and again.  Yes, there are moments of God’s judgment.  Surely there are warnings of dire consequences as a result of sin.   But I believe that the story of God’s redeeming love, mercy and forgiveness permeates the entire Bible.

The good news of Jesus Christ rests on the grace of God.  Above all, that is why I err on the side of grace – because that is what I believe Jesus did.  That is why he invited sinners to be his disciples.  That is why he ate with tax collectors and pharisees.  He healed gentiles and children and women.  He forgave the unforgiven and welcomed the unwelcome.  Time and again he leaned on the grace of God and for it he was betrayed, denied, abandoned and crucified.

So yes, I err on the side of grace.  It’s not always the easy choice, but it seems like a good rule of thumb to me.

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Worst video ever: What’s up with you?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

I don’t think Albert Einstein knew Eddie Murphy, but when I see this quote, I think of the video below:

Eddie Murphy is one of the all-time kings of comedy.  He was at times profane and vulgar, but he was (as his second video claimed) raw.  He was a little bit angry.  He was a little bit dangerous because he had something to say about American culture.  He was young and brash and black and brilliant.  He was Chris Rock before Chris Rock. I remember watching his first, far superior, video “Delirious” in my friend’s basement.  We knew we were doing something very wrong, and I didn’t get a lot of the jokes, but I knew it was funny.

Most young people now only know Eddie Murphy as Donkey or Dr. Doolittle.  There is very little dangerous about him.  But I remember Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, Gumby, Buckwheat, and his duet with Joe Piscopo as Frank Sinatra doing “Ebony and Ivory.”  I am black and you are white.  You are blind as a bat and I have sight.  Yet it seemed like Eddie Murphy always wished he was a singer.  And when he sang as a part of his comedy routines, he was funny, and a pretty good singer.

The problem arose when he tried to sing as a singer.  Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy could easily be described as geniuses, but if they were judged solely on “What’s Up With You,” I don’t think the word genius would appear.  The song, I think, is supposed to be about the environment and how we are supposed to treat the earth.  Beyond repeating “Whazzup wit you” about 45 times, he doesn’t really say much.  Although I’m pretty sure he says something like “Let’s Jackie Chan each other.”

The vocals are “good for a comedian” but not food for a singer.  This video is just weird.  I’d love to describe it for you, but let’s just say it includes Murphy in an undershirt, Jackson in his pretend-army uniform, a bunch of kids that went to school with Carlton and Will skipping and dancing around, some animated hearts, birds and musical notes, some shifts from black and white to color, and some half-hearted dancing which includes Murphy doing some of Jackson’s moves and a lot of exaggerated head nodding.

Like I said, worst video ever.  And further proof that Einstein knew what he was talking about.  Do what you’re good at, or you might just look stupid.

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If LaRussa goes to HoF, why not McGwire?

In the 2011 Hall of Fame voting, Mark McGwire received 19.8% of the vote, far short of the 75% required to gain admission to the Hall.  His 583 career home runs are the most of any player that is eligible for the Hall (retired 5 years), that has not been enshrined.  For many years that honor belonged to Dave Kingman and his 442 home runs.  In McGwire’s first year of eligibility he received 23% of the vote.  For right now, the trend shows that Mark McGwire will never be elected into the Hall of Fame.

Neither will Rafael Palmeiro.  Palmeiro is one of four players to have 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits.  The other three are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.  In his first year of eligibility, Palmeiro received 11% of the vote.  No one has ever made the Hall after receiving 11% of the votes.  Palmeiro and McGwire are exhibits A and B for the steroid era sluggers making the Hall of Fame.  Both of them are confirmed users.  Both have incredible, HoF-worthy numbers.  Neither will be enshrined in the near future.

Why do I bring this up? Because this week Tony LaRussa retired.  He retired after an emotional run to his third World Series championship.  He retired after what was a mixed-bag of managing. In the Series he made some world-class gaffes as well as incredibly shrewd moves.  There is little doubt that LaRussa is a Hall of Fame manager.  He has won three World Series titles, including wins out of both leagues.  He has won division titles with three teams.  He has won the manager of the year twice (and will likely win it again this year).  He is third on the all-time list in managerial wins behind only legends Connie Mack and John McGraw (and is second all-time in losses).

Shortly after he retired the accolades, congratulations, and well-wishes came pouring in.  It seemed like every news source and commentator was fawning over his incredible achievements and his already paved route to Cooperstown.  I just want to say, “Hold on a second.”

While McGwire and Palmeiro sit outside Hall, we’re going to let LaRussa stroll right in?  No, he never used performance enhancing drugs, but he certainly benefited from them.  It has been argued that LaRussa is the most complicit manager of the steroid era.  Tony LaRussa managed Mark McGwire in two different stops – his two most successful, I might add.  McGwire has finally admitted to using steroids, first in Oakland in 1989, and again in his famed run toward 73 home runs with the Cardinals in 1998.  His manager both times? Tony LaRussa.  He claims that LaRussa, who has time and again defended McGwire, didn’t know anything about it.

This book was "bashed" at first, but most Canseco's assertions have been vindicated.

At best, it seems hard to believe that LaRussa knew nothing – twice.  At worst, he was a complicit participant in the greatest systematic cheating scandal in the history of the game.  Some go so far as to say that he was actively covering up the steroid use of his players while at the same time berating any reporters with the gall to ask questions.  And according to Jose Canseco, the guy who has been proven right over and over again despite being ridiculed and insulted when he first made his accusations, LaRussa knew everything.

I’m not saying that LaRussa shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but it seems clear that a standard about the steroid era has been set.  It will be interesting when 2013, when Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens become eligible for the first time.  If any of them get in, it will surprise me.  Interestingly enough, because managers are voted into the Hall differently, LaRussa will first be eligible (along with Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox) in, how cool is this, 2013.

So it turns out 2013 will be an interesting year for the Hall of Fame and the steroid era.  Three known users and two managers that benefited greatly from the era (Torre managed A-Rod, Clemens, Giambi) will all become eligible.

I’m not passing judgment on LaRussa’s resume, but I’m surprised that almost all national media outlets have been completely silent on LaRussa’s less than sparkling involvement in the steroid era.  It seems to me that there is a double standard.  If the players don’t go in, why would their managers?

For further reading:

Sorry Albert, I don’t believe you.

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