World War I and the Prophet Micah

Exactly 100 years ago - give or take a few weeks - some men got together and played soccer. But this was no ordinary soccer match; this might be the most interesting soccer game that has ever been played. The players were from England and Germany, but it was not the World Cup or even the Euro Cup.

This soccer game happened during World War I. England and Germany were on opposite sides, dug into trenches in the French country side. Both sides were sustaining heavy losses, but it was only 1914, and the losses were destined to much get heavier.

The things that caused WWI are complicated: an assassination, complex royal family ties, crisscrossed national interests and nationalistic pride, the dying gasp of European colonialism, etc. Whatever the reasons, none of them make a good enough reason in my view for a war that ended with about 17 million people either dead or missing. 

Yet on Christmas Day, 1914, soldiers from both sides set up goals and boundaries in No Man's Land - the area between the two battle lines - and they played soccer. This was a part of what later came to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, an informal ceasefire that took place along some sections of the Western Front. In the middle of one of the most violent - and also, pointless - wars in human history, soldiers crossed the supposedly uncrossable lines of conflict to remember things that went even deeper than the conflict. 

Unfortunately the peace didn't last forever. A few days later they went back to killing each other, and the commanding officers on both sides made sure there was no Christmas truce in later years. 

Nonetheless, this story reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the Hebrew Prophet Micah:

     But in the days to come,
               the mountain of the LORD’s house
                    will be the highest of the mountains;
               it will be lifted above the hills;
                    peoples will stream to it.
     Many nations will go and say:
          “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the LORD,
                    to the house of Jacob’s God,
               so that he may teach us his ways
                    and we may walk in God’s paths!”
     Instruction will come from Zion
               and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
     God will judge between the nations
               and settle disputes of mighty nations,
                    which are far away.
     They will beat their swords
     into iron plows
               and their spears
               into pruning tools.
     Nation will not take up sword
     against nation;
               they will no longer learn
               how to make war.
     All will sit underneath
     their own grapevines,
               under their own fig trees.
          There will be no one to terrify them;
               for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken. (Micah 4:1–4 CEB)

In Micah 4:1-4 the nations are drawn to God, God judges them and settles their arguments, and fighting and war become obsolete. What a wonderful picture!

But then they respond by doing something incredible. They aren't just drawn to God; their lives are totally changed. Their outlook, their circumstances, the way they see and experience the world have undergone a total transformation. So they take the tools that they used to use to destroy things, and they modify them into tools that foster life. 

They turn their swords into plows. Instead of cutting into peoples’ bodies, instead of killing with swords, they turn them into plows. A plow is also a tool that cuts, but it cuts into the earth in order to bring forth life and food. Then they turn their spears into pruning hooks. Instead of stabbing and killing, these tools will strategically trim a plant in a way that will cause it to live more fully and bear more fruit. 

This is God's plan for war and for all of our fighting: swords into plows; spears into pruning instruments. Our instruments of destruction get turned into instruments of life. But this isn't just God's plan for our tools, this is God's plan for us too.

We are like swords and spears. Our words and our actions destroy, and they cut and stab. We break things, and we mess stuff up, but God wants to make us into plows and pruning tools. God wants to make us new, and God wants to make us into the kind of things that make other things new. God does just that through Christ. In the words of John Calvin, commenting on this passage in Micah 4:

...the fruit of the doctrine of Christ …[is]... that men, who were before like cruel wild beasts, would become gentle and meek. Forge then shall they their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.

The end result of Christ is that we are totally transformed into something new: God becomes our God, and we become God's people. Which brings us back to the Christmas Truce of 1914. How appropriate that it was at Christmas! Christmas is where God comes down in Christ and crosses all of our battle lines, clearing space in our world and in our lives and in our hearts for peace and joy, clearing a playing field where there once was only a battle field. 

To become this playing field - this space for peace and joy that God clears for the sake of the world through Christ - is the calling of the church. We gather Sunday mornings for worship so that God can reshape us and transform us from instruments of violence into instruments of life.

UMC Candidacy Questions: My Beliefs

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The third of these responses (and the last one I intend to post on this blog) follows, below.  ¶ 311.2.a.iii Write about your beliefs as a Christian.

I believe that the God who created all things took on flesh and walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s history of Israel, the full enactment of God’s faithfulness to the promises he made to his people, the assertion of God’s Reign on earth. I believe that Jesus displays the power and the wisdom of God in the weakness and foolishness of his death on the cross. I believe that Jesus’ innocence, his faithful obedience, was affirmed when he rose from the dead. I believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection sin was defeated and death itself died. I believe that God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the whole world to bear witness to this Good News about what God has done in Jesus.

I believe that God has called-out the church to be witnesses of these things —- to partner with him in the sharing of this News and in the performance of this Reign through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that to bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to renounce all other lords as ultimately false and to follow after his pattern of Lordship by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. I believe that living life towards this God who has come to love us his enemies in the person of Jesus means to live by a similarly radical kind of love toward God, toward neighbor, and toward our own enemies. I believe that holiness is becoming consumed by this kind of love, overwhelmed by its fulness and completeness, and graciously perfected and overcome by its practice. I believe that the Holy Spirit works on us through certain ‘means of grace’, central among them being the practice of baptism, whereby the church welcomes one into its covenant community of worship and witness, and holy communion, whereby the church takes up particular discrete acts of Jesus, gives thanks to God through them, breaks bread to remember what Christ has done for us and to rehearse for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and shares a common table as an act of holy hospitality and as spiritual food to empower our ongoing worship and witness. I believe that to follow after this Jesus, to walk on his way, is the only good and true and beautiful way to live, the only genuinely, fully and originally human way to be.

I believe that the same Jesus will one day bring his Reign into its fulness, at which point we will answer for our sins, but he will wipe away our tears, make all things new, and come to dwell fully and completely with humankind in a New Earth. I believe that whatever this looks like, however God freely determines to wrap this whole drama up, it will be Good, and Holy, and Righteous, and True. And I believe that living our lives together and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all things that his own resurrection foretells is what gives us the courage to live counterintuitive lives of faithfully hopeful love as described above.

William Cannon "Grandaddy" Matthews

Grandaddy,  June 12, 1927-September 14, 2009 (  obituary  )

Grandaddy, June 12, 1927-September 14, 2009 (obituary)

I wrote this short reflection for The New Olympian, the newsletter for Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren in Seattle, WA.

My dad’s mom, known to me as Granny, walked down the aisle at First United Methodist Church of Pineville, Louisiana, accompanied arm-in-arm by her older brother James, the same brother that led her down the aisle at her wedding fifty-six years ago. Behind her followed her three sons, known to me as Uncle Bill, Uncle Al and Dad, her ten grandchildren (including myself) and various daughters-in-law, nieces and nephews and other relations. The congregation stood as we passed by, accompanied by a solo piano playing Great is Thy Faithfulness.

And that’s when it really hit me, fully, that he was gone.

Of course I teared up a little a few weeks ago when I visited him and he reached for my hand and held it, weakly, but warmly and affectionately. He didn’t say much of anything to me, but he did look at me, eye to eye, for an extended period of time, and I think he knew who I was. As I remember it he even smiled ever so slightly without breaking his gaze, that old sly smile of his.

I’d also been to the visitation the day before the funeral, and lightly wept as I stared into his face and tenderly touched that same hand, now cold and stiff, with my own warmer, fleshier one.

We had also all cried together as an extended family as, over and over again, we watched a video made in his honor by his employer for the celebration of his retirement many years ago, a photo slideshow set to music, featuring pictures of him the way I’ll always remember him: with all his humor and wit, his playfulness, tenderness and strength. And that smile. His face in those pictures was so full of vitality and energy.

But in spite of these things, it still seemed as though my coming to grips with his passing did not yet seem complete. As special as he was to me, as much love as he poured out on me throughout my whole life, in light of all the gratitude I have for who he was as a grandfather and as a man I had expected from myself a much stronger reaction. (I wasn’t by any means preoccupied or self-conscious about this, but it was just something I had noticed.)

As a whole, it was a beautiful funeral. The pastor summarized the obituary that was penned by my dad and his brothers; my Uncle Bill and some friends told stories about him – of which there are many good ones; I had the privilege of reading the 23rd Psalm and parts of John 14, and the pastor talked about Jesus at his friend Lazarus’ funeral, among other things.

But the most memorable moment for me was walking down the aisle in that caravan of Matthewses and McCabes. We were there to remember, mourn and celebrate the life, death and resurrection of William Cannon Matthews, known to me as Grandaddy, and my ability finally to fully remember, properly mourn and adequately celebrate was only realized as the piano melody to Great is Thy Faithfulness rushed into my ears. I sang quietly to myself:

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Now that that family caravan is spread back across the United States, and I’m here sitting at my desk in Houston, it almost seems like a strange song for a funeral. But it isn’t. That lonely piano preached to me a sermon that I needed to hear. It turned out that on that day, it was only in the context of remembering God’s own faithful love and mercy that I was able finally to situate my grief at Grandaddy’s death, as well as the fullness of the joy I have for having been a part of his life.

Grandaddy used to tell us grandkids, usually in connection with a lively embrace, “I love you so good.” It was such a unique way of expressing that sentiment, and he said it so often, that it became his signature expression. His great and persistent, generous and extravagant love for me, his grandson, is to me like a parable of God’s love for us.

I’ve said it before: Christianity is basically all about death and resurrection. In Christ the crude physical reality of death has been overcome and the life and love of the Kingdom of God now reigns. Because of the great faithfulness of God, I can affirm that the cold, dead, stiffness of Grandaddy’s hand won’t have the last word. The Christ who suffered so brutally on the cross before being raised up and shown to be Lord of all has taken up the collective suffering of Grandaddy’s life into his arms, and with his own pierced hands finally restores and makes new Grandaddy’s hands, restoring warmth and life greater than any previously imaginable.

And the same Christ in his faithfulness and mercy takes my grief at the loss of Grandaddy, and not just that but all the grief and suffering of the entire universe, into his arms as well. That same Christ promises to wipe away tears from every eye, and to destroy death for forever. And that same Christ promises to make, not just Grandaddy, but all things, new. Great is his faithfulness.

Early Moltmann on Eschatology and (not) Adapting to our Environment

"Christian eschatology in the language of promise will then be an essential key to the unlocking of Christian truth. For the loss of eschatology - not merely as an appendix to dogmatics, but as the medium of theological thinking as such - has always been the condition that makes possible the adaptation of Christianity to its environment and, as a result of this, the self-surrender of faith." -Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 41