The Odd Vernon Johns


vernonjohns

I would like to introduce – or reintroduce you if the case may be – to a rather peculiar man named Vernon Johns.    He was a man who few know of, but for those who do; a man certainly unlikely to be forgotten.   Vernon Johns was an odd bird, yet his story deserves retelling.

(more…)

It’s Good to be Home.


For those of you who are regulars on the JesseLeeProject, you probably noticed a lack of activity of late.   Although some of you might have been thinking that they had finally ridden me out of town (maybe some were hoping), the truth is significantly less dramatic.   Last week, I finished a class on the practice and art of preaching held in Washington.    With the class bumping up against Holy Week the workload rose to incredible levels.  

Happily, my world has returned to its normal pace.   The class is complete and theoretically I should be a more skilled preacher now.   For those of you who attend Asbury,  I anxiously await your sentiment and assessment.  Then again, maybe I do not.

My classes, although at times difficult to seamlessly merge with an already hectic day, are part education and part renewal.   I enjoy the opportunity to lock myself behind closed doors with a dozen other tent-making ministers.  When those doors close, it only takes a minute before all the shared challenges of bi-vocational ministry come rising to the surface.    For me Washington has always been a sort of retreat.

There are few places I enjoy more in this world than Washington.    Although the tourist focused areas of the National Mall are not my cup of tea, Wesley Seminary is located more towards the American University/Embassy Row/Chevy Chase end of the city.   This is an area of the city wealthier than others and there seems to be – as a result of that wealth probably – a southern calmness that fills the area.   To add to this trip – after my class was over- the family met me in DC and we spent an additional three days doing the tourist thing of our national capitol.

Having said that, and as I exhale and think back on this class, there are a couple of thoughts that rise to the front of my thinking.   First, would certainly be the very creative way I have been addressing seminary.   From MDIV classes in places like Buffalo and Lexington, and Course of Study classes in places like Washington or the Appalachians, it seems that I have and will be seldom in the same place twice.    I have often said, and wholeheartedly believe that God surprises each of us as we take our faith journeys.  We seldom have the luxury of knowing from day to day where he will lead us.   For me, nowhere is that more clear than in this seminary experience.

And the second thought that is front in center comes in how accurate a professor’s comment was during that class.    The professor said, in regards to sermon preparation, that in the end travel is one of the best tricks for beating writers block.    When you travel you always end up with a story.   When it comes to my travels for school, it certainly seems that there is no more truthful of a statement than that.

This trip was a story of unintended delays and interruptions.    I have come back with a wide assortment of stories covering drug dealers, prostitutes, dive hotels, and even men without pants.   Each one of those stories could likely become a sermon in its own right.   Odds are they will.

For this message, I would like to share a particularly heartfelt and emotional circumstance that impacted me over this past week.    It was one that shook my faith to its fullest.   It had me questioning the better humanity of the stranger on the street.     Someone stole my iPhone.

You don’t need me to tell you how much that phone is a part of my life.   My comings and goings are on that phone.   It is usually within a few inches of me or within a pocket at all times.   For a few minutes in a hotel in DC I let that distance widen, and I paid the price.

Within a few minutes the phone was gone.    For me, the shakes began.    I was a mess of emotions; anger, sadness, and grief were just a few.    It was as if an appendage was forcibly removed from my body.   

“OH THE HUMANITY,” I cried “WHY, OH GOD HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?”

Through the shakes, I saw my kids with panicked expressions on their faces.  “Daddy lost his phone!?!?”   My wife gently rubbed my shoulders and in that calm and soothing voice she can pull out at a moment’s notice and said it would be all right.   Yet, there in the middle of the utter darkness of that moment, I sat shaking on the bed.  “My phone, my phone, my phone…”  

After a few moments were given to allow the realization to set in and as if I was working through Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Stages of Grief and Dying, a final depressed acceptance settled like a pall on the room.    The truth that Siri the iPhone was gone was now real.    With a sigh and a tear, I accepted that fate.   

Like a trooper, I knew I couldn’t let my family down by allowing this great crime to tarnish our vacation, so I took a breath and rose like a man.   I cowboy’d up.   Within a few moments we were on our way to a museum on the other side of the city.   Mind you, the full scope of the great phone crime hadn’t left me, and several times on the way across the city, I softly reminded those gathered that my “whole life was on that phone”.

Ten minutes later we were at the Holocaust Museum.    

The best description I can give of that museum is of a place that as soon as you enter, the world turns an incredible shade of gray.   There is a somberness and sadness in that place that is hard to imagine.     The silence is almost deafening.

As you walk through the place, you see videos of the dead.  You see their clothes.   You can touch their bunks.   You see their names etched in glass.     As you walk the videos playing throughout merge and provide this ugly symphony of noise behind you.   At times, you can hear Hitler’s voice in that ugly scream that has overtime become his trademark.

One of the final displays of the museum is a corridor where you walk through on your way out of the hall.    On both sides of you are piles of shoes.    These are the actual shoes of the murdered found at Auschwitz.   Seeing them stops you dead in your tracks. 

Annie and I stood mesmerized by the pile.   There were shoes of all styles and sizes.    There were shoes with soles tied with twine, and there were high heels with fancy buckles.  You couldn’t help but be struck speechless by the diversity of the shoes.    As you stood there the smell of those shoes hung heavy in that room.    It took Annie and me a good 15 minutes to make it through the 15 foot corridor.

As I stood there with a lump in my chest, I had a final realization.    Maybe…just maybe… my entire life was not indeed on that phone.   

I believe that God speaks to us in a myriad of ways.   Sometimes it truly is in that burning bush moment, and other times in that still, small voice.  Sometimes it’s in what I repeatedly call the flick in the ear.   Sometimes God opens a big can of kick-butt in the simple act of putting things in perspective.     In a pile of shoes, in that gray place, God smacked me in the back of the head, flicked me in the ear; and said “Get some perspective for crying out loud.”

I did, and as I did, I realized that perspective is a times the rarest of commodities in our world.   We get so lost in the coming and the going and the to-do lists, we forget that sometimes our jobs, our careers, our gadgets, and our games are not what is important.   We all need to find a way to reintroduce that perspective in our day to day.    I believe that has to be part of our faith journey.

At the same time,  I also believe this is also why the church is so important.   As I think of my day to day life, I cannot think of another place where perspective can be gained like that which is available in our sanctuaries.    Perhaps perspective is found in hospitals or funeral homes, but that occurs in moment of crisis.     The church is about gaining that perspective today and every day.

In the end, if we allow this place to become irrelevant and to fade in the background, what is left?   Where do we go?   Where do our neighbors find what we offer?    I ask that you consider and pray on that question over the next few days.   As life returns to normal, I too will do just that.

Over the next week, I plan on posting the Easter Sermon delivered at Asbury Church, an Earth Day Children’s message, and some commentary about the happenings in Tampa as Methodists from around the globe meet at our quadrennial General Conference, were all the business/doctrine/politics/noise of our church is raised for the world to see. 

It’s good to be home.

*******************

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.

 We are the shoes of grandchildren and grandfathers.

From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam,

And because we are only made of fabric and leather

And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the Hellfire.

Yiddish Poet – Moses Schulstein (1911-1981)

The Hunger Games: Finding God in the Arena


Last week I took my eldest daughter to see the blockbuster movie the Hunger Games. 

If you have turned on the news of late you would have to be a very disinterested watcher to not understand what I am referring too, because it seems to be all that is front and center of late.   The Hunger Games is the first movie in a planned trio, to tackle a dark book series, by the same name written by Suzanne Collins.  The books were intended for youths and they have sold a record 800,000 copies in 2 years.  The books are now printed 28 languages, and experts expect that number to break the millions mark very quickly now that adults are reading the books too.

The movie series appears to be on track to be an overwhelming success as well.

  • The New York Daily news reports that the film earned “a record-shattering $155 million at the box office in its debut weekend, the third-highest total in history and the highest ever for a non-sequel. Only last year’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight” finished with higher openings.”  The movie made $19.7 million on the Midnight Nationwide showing alone.
  • As a result of the initial success of the movie ABC Family has purchased the TV rights for the books for a staggering – and undisclosed – amount of money.

The merchandising is over the top and the impact of the movie is being seen in clothing purchases as millions of teenage girls now want to dress and be like the star of the movie.    Archery lessons are even skyrocketing as the girl is an expert in the movie…1

For some however, the reaction has been less than ideal.   Nowhere is that response more critical than from Christian corners of the world.

I have collected a series of quotes from around the internet, and the below is a spattering of some of the online responses to the movie:

  • Unless Hollywood returns to the historic practice of producing wholesome, uplifting movies, it must be boycotted in its entirety”
  • “No responsible parent would allow his child to see this movie. A brief moment of entertainment is not sufficient to outweigh the irreversible damage to an impressionable young mind.”
  • “There is no more adequate book for the bonfire than these.”

In the end, you don’t need me to remind you that most often what we hear on the internet or on radio or TV represents those among us who yell the loudest.  What we see and hear is usually the extreme among us, and it’s usually not mainstream Christians. 

Yet smack dab in the middle of the noise the rest of us sit back and wonder.   There is no arguing The Hunger Games is certainly a dark and violent movie and in the end, we can’t escape wondering what are we supposed to think. How is a person who struggles with their faith, in a confusing and broken world, supposed to respond to this movie and these books?   Where are we to stand?

Now, before I move this message to its next portion and talk of my own attempts to answer that question in an authentic and genuine way let me be clear.   Although I will not spoil the climax of the books or movie, I will be providing you a framework for the story, and as such treat this as my spoiler alert.   If you plan on reading the series and you want every single page to be fresh and new, this is your time to scurry off. 

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ….

Final Warning….

5, 4, 3, 2, 1….

Okay, you’re stuck here…

I guess there also is room for one more caveat…If you never plan on partaking of the series rest assured this message will provide you just enough of the meat of the story so you don’t feel like an outcast at the water cooler. 

To summarize:

The Hunger Games is the story of a 16 year old, girl next door, named Katniss Everdeen.    Katniss lives in a place called District 12 of the nation of Panem.    Panem is a post apocalyptic United States, and District 12 would be found were Appalachia is today.    Just like Appalachia, District 12 is a poverty stricken coal mining community. Katniss lives in the bleak place with here mentally unstable mother, and her little sister named Primrose or Prim.   Her father died in a coal mining accident several years prior.

The nation is ruled by a harsh and evil dictator named President Snow.    At some point in the past, the 12 districts of Panem, revolted against the government, and eventually the government destroyed the uprising.    As a punishment, the Capitol instated something called the Hunger Games.

Think Survivor on steroids.

Each year, all the children of the nation between 12 and 18 years old entered a lottery of sorts.  On the day of reaping – as it was called – a boy and a girl’s name are drawn at random to become contestants or “tributes” in the games, televised across the nation.    These 24 youths are then taken to the Capitol, which resides amidst the protection of the Rocky Mountains, to fight in a vast arena.    Game makers create roadblocks and dangers throughout the battle, and the fight rages until all our dead but one.    That lone survivor comes back both wealthy and as a hero.

On the day of the “reaping”, Katniss’ little sister Prim’s name is drawn.   Immediately Katniss, who has devoted her life to caring for her little sister, steps up to take her place.   Almost immediately she is coupled with a boy, Peeta Mellark, who has always secretly loved Katniss, and together they are whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the games.

The wealthy, bored, and over privileged citizens of the Capitol celebrate the brutality of the games with elaborate parties and celebrations.    The paparazzi and the fanfare go full tilt.   Each set of contestants are provided with a team of spin doctors all with the intent of helping the tributes look and sound better, as each hopes to eventually earn sponsors that provide much needed food, medicine and supplies while in the arena.

In the end, the Hunger Games is the story of Katniss and Peeta in that Arena.

And YES, That story is indeed dark.  It’s about kids killing kids, and it doesn’t get much darker than that.   At the same time it has touched on something in our culture.  First it reached out and grabbed a hold of the imagination of our children, and now it’s doing the same to our adults. 

A couple of years ago, I had a discussion with Jake and Annie about the books and one of them said, the story is just so believable.   “You can almost imagine it happening,” they said. I have read the series too and their statement is 100% true.      That fact – in and of itself – is almost heart breaking.    You have two children, both growing up in the church, to good parents and in good schools, and they both agree that the darkness, which in a perfect world should be almost unimaginable, seems almost likely.  

It is heartbreaking, but they are spot on.  It is heartbreaking because we live in:

  • A world of those that have and those that have not,
  • A world were the poor are made hungry to feed the excesses of the rich,
  • A world were violence is made regular and almost celebration,
  • A world were power trumps humanity,

We are kidding ourselves if we do not see this as an indictment of today rather than some far off fairy tale.

Even the description from the book, on the capitol, is disturbing and all to close;

“Glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air,

the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets,

the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair,

and painted faces who have never missed a meal.

All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright,

the yellows painful to the eyes. “ 

If that doesn’t bring up the mental image of Times Square or Las Vegas nothing does.   Later in the book they refer to their home as the “place where you can starve to death in safety.”  A similar accusation can without question be made of our home.  The world of these books is not that far from the world of here and now.

A little while ago, I remember speaking on Harry Potter, and telling those gathered that for Sophie, when she closes her eyes, she imagines herself at Hogwarts or casting spells.    I theorized that it wasn’t much different than when I was a kid, and imagined myself standing next to C3PO or Darth Vader on the Death Star.  

Yet, when I think of Annie closing her eyes and finding herself in the arena, nothing disturbs me more.

AND I cannot help but ask do they see that broken world when they open their eyes too?

The books are disturbing.   I know that Sophie (my youngest) will not be reading them for a long time.

But, I will be encouraging her to read them as a teenager.   In the end, I would argue that if a child wants to read them, that a parent or adult needs to take that journey with them.   In the end there is a lot to digest in the books, and sometimes it is made easier, when a child sees the safety net of someone the trust at their side.

I have come to believe that these books are many things, all of which argue that they need to read.

They are stories of a girl battling to remain true to her humanity in the face of incredible brutality; a war that Annie will one day need to wage. They are stories of greed battling compassion; a battle Annie will surely one day fight.  They are stories of children and innocence lost; a reality that one day Annie will have to face.  They are stories that demonstrate just how wide the gulf between love and apathy is; a truth that will one day hit my daughter full on.  

There are a million stories and lessons within those pages, and a discussion is being had.   As with so many other struggles in our society, we cannot be afraid to listen and speak up.  People of faith need to be part of the discussion.   Instead, so many of us circle the wagons or cower in fear of imaginary demons.

With what should be a given, I find it hard to hear of the many that would argue to take the books, along with those like Harry Potter, and toss them into a bonfire behind their churches.    Although it is the extremists who argue this, there are many middle of roaders who silently fear the ‘what if’s that come with the book.

After some time of reflection, I sense that there is more that even the most extreme among us can learn from the story of Katniss and Peeta.   A large portion of my faith journey has been trying to position myself – as well as to teach myself – to recognize God in all things; the good and the bad, the secular and the holy, and the dirty and the clean.  

 You will find God in ALL places.  You will find him in the dark theatres or in the pages of a book that makes you squirm just as easily and intentionally as you do elsewhere.  How come it is so hard for us to remember that?

For those of us middle of the road faithful who struggle with what we are to take from this book and movie (and what we are supposed to witness to others about), the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the echoes of that judgment and that finger pointing that is born via the extreme among us.    Today, (and especially as a pastor) I struggle with the right and proper response to these books right along with the next guy. Yet, I know there can be something to hear EVERYWHERE….EVEN in the violent story of a young girl.  

I just wish I had better hearing for these things.

It isn’t easy or clear cut.   Violence has become too main stream and we have become desensitized to it.   We are no longer surprised when the violence moves from the silver screen to the real world.   We have lost our ability to see it for what it truly is. 

We have been changed by a violent world.   We believe that it’s okay to meet violence with violence.   We expect violence, redemption, and revenge to be part of the plan.   We have forgotten the adage that an eye for an eye makes the world blind and we are wander without truly seeing.

I found it ironic that a book that condemns violence as celebration and sport captures the heart of our children, but I witnessed those same children cheering in the theatre when the villain (also a teenager) gets it in the end.   We have missed and miss so much. Violence has become so common place that so many of us cannot even acknowledge there may be problem with a movie about 13 year olds killing 13 year olds as sport.

Again, I wish I had better hearing.

I chuckle because all of these mental hula hoops arose after the briefest conversation on a Facebook page with a clergy friend of mine.   I know and respect him, and I have shared coffee and conversation with him.  Yet, I was surprised on his response to this movie.  Since that time, I found myself struggling with the issue.   We had – and have – different views and I know that’s okay.   In reality, that wide range of differing theologies is what makes the United Methodist Church so wonderful in the first place.

Yet, hearing the conviction in others, got me to asking where is mine.  I know deep down I should be deliberate in what I say and think about this very precariously charged question.  Do I know what I believe?  Do I know as clearly as others what I should argue?   As a result, I decided to do that thing that the church is called to be best at; to take some time and listen.

As soon as I did, I heard the whispers of something infinitely more wonderful.    The following is what came from that discernment…

Honestly, It was like a light bulb materialized above my head.  I started to see that the Hunger Games is almost as perfect of a retelling of the Palm Sunday story as I could imagine.    As I worked through the thought, I was positive that if I spoke those words I would be met with gasps among many of my fellow church friends.   I am sure they would think that I had lost my mind, if not my theology.   

I can only imagine the heated emails I will get after this message made is published to the blog.   Yet in the end, I can’t shake the reality that the Hunger Games is a love story, and that love story seems to run so close to the Love Story of Easter.  Although you don’t need me to remind you that writing is not my forte (and this blog is my tool to improve that skill set), hopefully I can do the feeling within my heart the justice it deserves. 

If there is a central theme of the Hunger Games, it is most clearly that of a love story.   It’s not a romantic, boy meets girl, boy runs away with girl against the odds type of love, but a love that is life saving.   It’s about a love that is live giving.    It’s a story of sacrificial love.

The love Story rests upon Peeta and Katniss, and if Annie does see the arena when she closes her eyes, I hope with every ounce of me, that it’s the love story she finds herself in and not the battle.

Again in the way of some back story, during a bleak and hungry period of Katniss’ life, and years before she is chosen for the games, her family is without food and has reached bottom.   Her family is starving to death and about to reach the zero hour. It’s no longer about just being hungry; it’s about facing death from starvation.   As a last result, and braving the winter’s cold, she goes out to find whatever crumbs she can.   In that moment, she sees Peeta and Peeta provides her with the gift of bread.  

With that gift hope returns.

As soon as she receives the bread, she discovers what she calls the first “dandelion of the year”; or her reminder that spring and rebirth is around the corner.    She was given the gift of realizing that there still is a chance.   Peeta gave her hope and promise wrapped up as a loaf of bread.    I see a real parallel to the true gift hidden in the bread we receive when we kneel at our communion rails. If there is a hero in this story, it is Peeta. 

Soon a theme starts enveloping the whole book and movie; where do you find your hope.    The name of the country in the story is “Panem”, the Latin word for bread.     It’s as if a theme develops;   where is your hope?   Where is your rebirth?   Where is your bread?

Peeta, according to one minister who has written extensively on the subject and who has actually written a guide to the Gospel through the Hunger Games, is the character on which the fullness of the story is built.   Peeta is the “suffering servant, meek but not weak, who loved Katniss unconditionally before she knew him. He is jealous of Katniss’ love but patient and never forcing himself on her. He promises Katniss he will stay with her always” and throughout the story he does.   He offers his own life in all ways, so that she can survive.    He offers, at what looks to be the cost of his very life, the gift of hope, new life, rebirth, and survival to Katniss.   

You know what?  I marvel at how close that looks like the gift of He we celebrate and praise each Sunday.

As I wrote these words down, and planned for our palms to be waved as part of our Palm Sunday,   I couldn’t help but picture another tribute – the tribute – riding into the Capitol city, amidst the paparazzi and the adoring fans.    They were going to receive the tribute and knew that everything would change.     They wanted to be there when the violence and anger was unleashed.   They wanted to be there in the arena.

2000 years ago, the Jewish world was divided into 12 districts living in contention with the capitol or the rulers.   We called those districts tribes however.   Additionally, within the capital of the ancient world was a great arena.    At the center of that arena people were tossed to animals and forced to fight great battles for the sheer joy of over privileged, over indulgent and wealthy citizens.   The world crumbled while the rich partied.

Outside the arena things were almost as unpleasant.   If you opposed the state they would condemn you.   If you made enemies they didn’t shun you, they nailed you to a tree, and cast lots for your clothes.   For the haves it was a time of excess.   For the have not’s it was a time marked with the agony of nothingness.    They longed for a distraction.  They longed for a change.   They longed for a tribute, or a messiah, that would fix things.

They cheered that tribute as he rode into the city.  They saw the triumphant king returning to take the world by force.   They waved their palms high.  They sang Hosanna and bubbled over with joyous and infectious hope.

Over the course of only a few days they see something else.  They meet the suffering servant, meek but not weak.  They meet He who loves unconditionally.   They see a tribute who is patient and never forceful.  They see a tribute that promise that he will never leave.    They see a tribute who offers his live, so others can enjoy and realize life.   The tribute becomes the gift of hope, life, rebirth and joy.    They see the tribute we worship in this place each week. They see my king.

Sadly, they are unprepared.   Their world is not ready.   They scream that this cannot be so.   They start to believe they had pointed to the wrong man.    They start believing that he’s wrong.

They kill the tribute.    

Or at least they tried to…you and me, we know better.

We live in a violent world, seemingly broken beyond words.   Our neighbors starve to death in safety.  Even the youngest celebrate and cheer the violence around us.    We fight each day to ignore and forget the reality that there are too many that have, while others have nothing.  The colors, the sights, and the sounds are painful to eyes.   The hunger is real and echoes throughout us.  Some point to the image of the kings and queens they hope to fix things.   Some miss the answer and the promise; the promise of the empty tomb and the King who rides in victory.

Let us all open our eyes, and at times close them, and not see that violent world broken and bleeding in the arena around us, but let us experience the love story.  Let us close our eyes and experience the love story of this most Holy week.   Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

(Sources:  New York Daily News, Suzzanne Collins, The Unofficial Hunger Games Fan Site, The Rev. Ann Duncan, Rev. Andy Langford)
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