An Easter Message

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? For whom are you looking?” Supposing he was the gardener she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus spoke to her, “Mary” and she turned toward him crying out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” which means “teacher.”

John 20:15-16

It has been 20 years since my beloved sister-in-law, Von, died. She was a pharmacist, a church musician, and a joy. She suffered from both multiple sclerosis and reoccurring breast cancer. She lived 14 years after diagnosis and during that time we all had the privilege of being witness to her devotion. So strong was her faith that the oncology unit began using her to talk with newly diagnosed women. It didn’t hurt that she had medical expertise, but what they valued most was her spiritual journey.

Being told at age 35 that you have an aggressive form of cancer, which is treatable but not curable, is of course difficult. The fact that she had two young children made it even harder to bear. She wept and by her own testimony was disconsolate. Over and over again she asked the obvious, “Why me?” She said one day in the midst of her darkness, light began to pierce her grief. She said she felt almost foolish that as a pharmacist, she was asking that. Day in and day out she dispensed medicine and knowledge to those who were sick and dying. She said, “I felt the question was the wrong one. I had to ask instead, ‘Why not me?’ Of course it is me. I am dying, and the cause of death isn’t MS or cancer; the cause of death is life.” If she had stopped there, with her professional life informing her personal suffering, that would have been a significant insight upon which to rest.

However, she did not remain in a place of simple acceptance based on logic and professional observation. She said one day it occurred to her the question she had asked with her tear-filled eyes, “Why me?” was not the wrong question after all. What was wrong was her point of view. Like Mary at the tomb through her tear-filled eyes, Von for a while could not see God present with her. Just like with Mary, whom Jesus called by name, so too did Jesus continue to call Von. She said peace and joy returned when she revisited the question “Why me?” She asked that question, looking not at her own suffering and pain, but at that of Jesus. “Who,” Von asked, “am I that before I was born, and while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me? Who am I that God would give his all for me? Why me?” Why me indeed! In that moment she gained strength, joy, and peace. She knew that Jesus had prepared a place for her and that because the tomb was empty her heart could be full. Out of tearful agonizing she emerged with her gaze sharpened. She saw clearly that she was surrounded by love and by hope and that even the worst that life could throw at her could not keep Christ from being with her.

On this Easter, when we worship at home, please find a way to proclaim “He is Risen!” Our eyes have been filled these past several weeks with too many tears. Let us see clearly that Christ was, is, and forever will be. May Resurrection faith fill us all.

Bruce Stanley


A Lament for Good Friday

“While they were eating he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ They were very sad and began to say to him, one after the other, ‘Is it I?’ Jesus said, ‘One who has dipped his hand in the bowl with me will betray me.’ ”

Matthew 26:21-23

Anyone who commits to taking the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus seriously must spend time in unsparing self-examination on Good Friday. Having observed the Last Supper, we awakened this day of Christ’s crucifixion to somber reflection. During the Last Supper, Christ pointedly spoke about his betrayal. Each of the 12 asked the same question, “Am I the one?” Jesus didn’t answer them individually. He said simply that one who has dipped their hand in the bowl with me will betray me.

Across the years we have tried to offload culpability and blame upon Judas of the Sicarii and use him as scapegoat. However, if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we must confess that we, too, have committed acts of betrayal. We have shared in the Last Supper – we have taken the bread and wine and dipped our hand in the bowl. Jesus knew then and knows now. It is not simply “Am I the one?” It is everyone. We have not simply put our hand in the bowl; we are sadly much more deeply involved.

I don’t write this to make any who suffer from self-loathing or depression feel even more helpless and hopeless. Rather this is an invitation to hope.

To claim the gift of forgiveness, we have to honestly address our shortcomings. We may not have committed the spectacular act of betrayal that Judas did. We may not have committed the public act of denial that Peter did. Yet we all betray and deny Jesus in some way. We do it when we have a scarcity mentality instead of an abundance mentality. We do it when we fall into fear instead of living in faith. We do it when we trust more in our own ability than in God’s power. We do it when we judge other people, when we trample on the environment and creation, and when we have resentful attitudes.

I wonder if Jesus would really have liked to answer their question, “Is it I?” with a simple “Duh.” Twelve times – Duh, Duh, Duh, Duh.

On this Good Friday we strive to achieve holiness. Let us confess freely that even the best among us still have at least residual resistance to the Grace and Will of God. I invite you to give over to God all error in action and untoward impulse in thought. May we empty our hearts and minds of regret and remorse so that the sacrificial love displayed upon the cross can pour in to the resulting emptiness.

May we emerge out of the darkness of these days.

Bruce Stanley


Lent 5: Coming together

And the Lord asked, ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ Ezekiel 37:3

When Ezekiel was given this vision by God, Israel was at one of her lowest points. The Babylonians had taken Jerusalem’s best and brightest back to Babylon. Not only were these Jews being held captive, they were being integrated into Babylonian life and being raised as other than Jews. Meanwhile, Jerusalem was a barren mess. Jews there were living with fear instead of faith and their hearts were full of despair rather than devotion. To both the suffering and bewildered Jewish diaspora and the Jews remaining in Israel, God spoke these powerful words of hope: I will bring you back.

Ezekiel’s vision is eternally contemporary.

In the United States it resonated with the ones whom we held captive. Our slaves, suffering horror unimaginable to most, found hope in Ezekiel’s words. They fashioned a song, “Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again” that was sung as both lament and encouragement. The song captures the components of Ezekiel’s vision: human bones, scattered and torn asunder; the sound of rattling as bone joins bone; the blowing, flowing wind as God breathes life to the bones.

This Lenten Season we find ourselves in isolation, torn from corporate worship, places of work, and even apart from family members whom we cannot hug or even visit. We ask, “Can these scattered remnants of a once proud people find life again?” How can we come together, remain connected, so that we can live.

I am full of hope as I see winds of change blowing through our land. A Sunday school class at Edenton Street UMC stays in touch with some of the church’s elderly by dropping off meals to their homes. It is not ideal that the meal must be left outside, yet it is a great way to connect. One of our neighbors has decorated their carport pillars with balloons so those out walking can see that hope springs forth. Others have pulled their Christmas lights back out of the attic as Advent and Lent collide. If you have tried to connect using Free Conference Call, Google, Zoom, or other platforms you may have experienced difficulty with access as their servers are overloaded with persons needing and wanting to communicate.

Ezekiel’s prophetic word is clear. Things have fallen apart and the people have become scattered. Can these bones live again? With confidence that God is sovereign and God’s will cannot be prevented, we answer a resounding yes. We join our voices and sing, “Dem bones gonna rise again!”

Bruce Stanley


Lent 4: Healing and hope

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:1-3

There is much noise and clutter in this Gospel lesson for the fourth week of Lent and it can make it difficult to hear the Good News.

We hear authentic questions of theodicy – how to account for evil in a world God pronounced good at creation. Keep reading the passage and you’ll find conflict about healing on the Sabbath and the refusal of bystanders to identify the one healed (“It could be … or it looks like him”).

Contributing to the distractions is the process of the healing itself. Jesus heals the man, yes, but he performs the healing in three stages. First he spits into the ground and forms a poultice. Next he applies the poultice to the man’s eyes. Then he instructs the man to wash it off in the Pool of Siloam.

We know Jesus raised the dead with a simple verbal command (Lazarus) and by the touch of his hand (the son of the widow of Nain). Why then this elongated and elaborate process?

In the midst of raised voices and pointed questions, there comes utterance that has rung across the ages with clarity and hope. When it is (finally!) his turn to talk, the man healed of his blindness declares with straightforward power, “One thing I know: I was blind and now I see.”

Today we too find ourselves in a time of loud noise and clashing voices. We find ourselves wanting the threat from Covid19 to be over quickly, even immediately. We don’t want to endure process or go through stages of isolation, diagnoses, and quarantine. We want to see the end of this so desperately. Returning to the passage in John, we are not told the age of the man who regained his sight. Had he waited 18 years? 30 years? Longer?

I cling to the man’s declaration. God is indeed with us, though we may now be blind to where and how God is at work. I claim his hope as mine, that one day where I have lacked sight I will be able to see.

Bruce Stanley


Lent 3: Warts and all

Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” – John 4:27-29

In past years many churches – Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox – would not permit weddings during the Lenten season. Some continue that restriction. The reasoning is obvious. Lent is the season of contrition and repentance and the rejoicing involved with marriage is in contrast to this.

In our current day, a few parishes and congregations maintain the total ban but generally the rule has been relaxed and the ban may apply only to Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

While I completely understand the traditionalist position banning weddings during Lent,  I think there is great argument to be made for the exact opposite position. Perhaps Lent is the most appropriate time for a wedding! 

After all, the traditional vows contain the admonition, “Matrimony is an honorable estate, instituted by God, and is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly but reverently, discreetly, and with the fear of God.” This is serious language.

The happy loving couple might not want to hear that a prerequisite of a healthy marriage is reverent introspection and a heart that trembles in the presence of the Holy and Perfect One. In the marriage ceremony currently found in the United Methodist hymnal, the ring vow is “With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.” During premarital counseling I ask couples to consider the great import of this statement. They are each offering (and asking) the other to receive all that they are. This means not simply noble sentiments and endearing traits. All means all – and includes petty resentment, short temper, impetuous comment, and sullen affect. There can be no pretending. Think of it as the warts and all clause.

Return now to the Gospel of John. At first glance the Woman at the Well’s invitation seems like a poor evangelism strategy. Do we really want to be in the presence of someone who knows “all that I ever did”? 

Yikes!

A more thorough look, however, reveals that not only does Jesus know all that we are, say, and do but he still loves us and desires to be in relationship with us.

We engage in introspection and self-examination during Lent not so we can be disconsolate but so we can be forgiven. We admit our wrongdoing and wrong thinking not to reinforce self-loathing but to celebrate the Lord who loves us, warts and all. We marvel that God is able to use even our frailty and weakness to achieve great things. We offer therefore all that we have and all that we are and trust that God’s redeeming love is greater than our shortcomings and sin.

The woman went to the well to draw water yet so overcome with the joy of salvation, she forgot all about her water jug! She ran with the news that others might come and experience Jesus also.

Her invitation is timeless, echoing across the ages: Come! See! It is the Christ!

– Bruce Stanley

 


Lent 2: In a word

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” – Matthew 3:1-3

During World War II the Resistance in Yugoslavia was incredibly effective and the longer the Nazis occupied the country, the more effective the Resistance became. The SS, notoriously adept at rooting out the underground in other parts of conquered Europe, were frustrated. They were chasing the presumed leader of the Resistance. So elusive was this leader that some in the SS thought he was a fabrication. Contributing to the conclusion in the intelligence community that he was not real was his nom de guerre, Tito.

In local slang, Ti meant “this” and To meant “that.” Legend has it that what made him so effective and so difficult to locate was his insistence on face to face communication and his brevity of speech. When a matter was being discussed or course of action contemplated, he replied decisively, “Do this,” or “Do that.” There was no lengthy discourse or written record. He commanded and moved on. Tito indeed.

John the Baptist communicated in like manner. He, too, was hiding from the (Roman) overlords as part of a resistance movement. He worked away from the cities and garrisoned towns. He preached in the wilderness area a single message, “Repent.” He stayed on message, calling the children of God to a life of contrition and self-examination. He worked tirelessly to help people lead a new life in God and to find forgiveness of sin. He did what was foretold – he prepared the way of the Lord.

We call this season of the year Lent. We might more accurately name it simply as that Jewish partisan did. Our fasting , our additional worship, our daily scripture readings and prayers are all toward one end. In a word, we are invited to “Repent.”


Lent 1: Good news

And Yahweh Elohim commanded A’dam, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’ Genesis 2:16

by Bruce Stanley

No scholar can say for certain when or how the apple, symbol of our willful disregard of God and point of entry into the wilderness, came to be identified as the fruit that was on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The best guess is that sometime in the Middle Ages, when Latin was the language of the church in western Europe and literacy levels were very low, confusion occurred. Latin used the word malum for apple. It is borrowed from Greek and is the word we in English borrow for melon. In Latin the word for evil is malus. A bite from the apple then came to be associated with our rebellious resistance; with that bite humankind moved from living in God’s preferred future to living in the wild.

The Lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Lent are traditionally wilderness passages. From the Hebrew Bible comes this reading (above) with Adam and Eve subsequently stumbling out of Eden and into a life of toil. The New Testament reading tells the story of Jesus in the wilderness dealing with our greatest adversary (the Hebrew term is H’satan).

Throughout scripture, the story is the same and – in fact – becomes the defining narrative of Israel’s faith. Consider these three examples: The Jewish people looked to their rescue from bondage in Egypt and wilderness wandering (prior to entering the Promised Land); Isaiah predicted and John the Baptist fulfilled the role of a “voice crying out of the wilderness”; and the final book in the Greek portion of scripture was written by John from prison during a time of horrible persecution and suffering.

With such grim experience in such inhospitable surroundings it may seem we have no hope.

During Lent, as we acknowledge the wilderness of our lives, we find there is hope sent from God in the person of Jesus Christ. In Greek, the word gospel means “Good News.” God comes to us in the midst of the wilderness in order to lead us out again and again and again and again.

Even when we are at our rebellious worst, Jesus comes to us, walking alongside us, offering hope. He comes for each and every person, no matter how great their sin and suffering. He comes unbidden even into the most desperate circumstance and he offers hope, joy, and peace. Jesus continues to journey with us, leading us all out of places of pain and suffering back to where we belong, within the walled garden of God’s preferred future.

Let us begin our Lenten journey acknowledging the wilderness around us and the wildness within us. We give thanks for the Word of God that tells the story of our loving Lord working to bring us safely back into right relationships where we belong.


Advent, week 2

By Bruce Stanley, president / CEO

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. –Matthew 3:3-4

As we deck the halls of our administration building we put out several Christmas creches. Each is unique; They are from different countries, different cultures, and made from different materials including pewter, wood, and ceramic. While the styles vary, the substance does not. In each there is a manger, a holy family, a shepherd’s crook, sheep, and wise men bearing gifts.

Those are the beautiful and celebrated parts of the Christmas story. Yet they do not tell all of the story. There is one essential character in the narrative who has already come and gone in Matthew’s narrative: John the Baptist.

Every year this awkward, unkempt guest shows up on the second Sunday of Advent. He comes unwashed, out of the wilderness, with challenging words of repentance and accountability for our sins. He is wearing a camel’s hair shirt and a barbed belt that purposefully chafes him each time he moves as a reminder of his sins. No Christmas cookies for him. He eats severely – only wilderness foods. While he seems out of place and unwanted, his importance cannot be denied. His awkwardness is essential to Christmas.

Many times as a pastor I have seen the unwashed, unexpected, or uninvited guest become the one who ushers in the Christmas spirit. Grace UMC in Wilmington is located on the same block as the Cape Fear Gospel Rescue Mission. In my second year of ministry we planned a Christmas party with the mission. The idea, of course, was that we, the advantaged, would provide presents/party/program for the disadvantaged. We shared a wonderful meal, we handed out presents, and then our choir led us in Christmas carols.

Unexpectedly, in the midst of the caroling, one of the homeless residents stood. He was tall and so slender as to suggest chronic hunger. His hair was clean but unkempt and he had a couple days stubble on his chin. In wavering southern voice, he spoke in the idiom of the rural church. He said, “I want to favor you with a special.” Then, without accompaniment or permission, he sang ‘O Holy Night.’

When he sang the words, “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” we all teared up. His voice was untrained. He wandered between sharp and flat. And yet, this awkward, unexpected soloist who came to us out of the “weary world” brought us into hope and rejoicing. Forty years have passed, yet I can still see his flannel shirt and blue jeans. I hear his untrained voice not with my ears now but with my heart. We who thought we were bringing the gifts were given a greater one. I doubt he ever realized that he was “the voice of one singing out in the wilderness,” but that day he prepared the way of the Lord.

As we wait and prepare for Jesus to come, let us do so with a renewed appreciation for the role that all of God’s children have to play in our lives. Let us actively welcome those who come from wilderness or weary world.

Read Advent, week 1
Read Advent, week 2
Read Advent, week 3
Read Advent, week 4


Advent, week 1

By Bruce Stanley, president / CEO

Watch therefore, and pray without ceasing, that ye may be accounted worthy … to stand before the Son of Man. –Luke 21:36

For the second time in four years our family finds itself preparing for the marriage of one of our children to a fantastic person. Joy is overflowing our hearts and we are counting down the minutes. Decisions have been made, details decided, rethought, and decided again. The planning and preparations are complete. With only two weeks before the wedding, we sit on the edge of our seats with high anticipation.

The first wedding we celebrated was for our daughter; this time, our son. Because of convention and cultural norms, there has been a marked difference in the amount of work involved. At this point I will readily admit to what you already surmise – as the dad I have done none of the heavy lifting. Because all involved want the events to be tasteful and refined, my contributions have been limited to offering praise, affirmation, and applause.

From my father’s sideline seat I have been struck by the marked difference in effort required of our family this second time through. For our daughter’s wedding I was asked to be attentive to details large and small for months and months. For our son, not nearly as much has been asked. While I have been looking forward to his wedding, I confess that even as dresses are selected and accessorized, the menu for the rehearsal dinner chosen, and family travel solidified, it wasn’t until last week when a package for our son (who lives in San Francisco) came that the moment to be seemed close upon me.

I reflected some that night that my level of necessary preparation for the two events has been greatly varied. In the words of Luke 21:36, for my daughter’s wedding it felt that it was indeed “watch therefore and pray without ceasing.” For my son’s wedding, I am clearly joyous and looking forward to it but honestly my level of watchfulness has not been as high.

Further reflection revealed that this varied level of preparation and watchfulness applies not just to impending nuptials, but also to my approach during Advent. I know that during some years I have been constant in prayer and Bible study and I marked the days of the Advent calendar without fail. In other years my preparation has been more episodic and periodic. I am convinced that in most if not all of life, anticipation is likely to exceed participation. In years in which I prepared little for Advent, I gained little. In years in which it was priority, I gained spiritually.

With this renewed understanding, I am fully and completely committing to preparation for the coming of the truly great event, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I invite you to also rededicate yourself to intentional preparation for the joy that is to come.

Read Advent, week 1
Read Advent, week 2
Read Advent, week 3
Read Advent, week 4


Lent – Week 2

Bruce Stanley, president / CEO – The Bible contains poetry, genealogy, history, prose, hymns, liturgy, fable, and science. It is, however, not a book of’ any of these categories, certainly not science.

For example, in Bible stories that talk about seeds, there are things that are simply not correct according to botanical science. In John 12 it says that a grain of wheat goes into the ground and “dies” so that it may sprout and bring forth grain. We know, of course, that the seed does not die but rather germinates and is transformed by growth.

Now look at Matthew 13. Here Jesus says that mustard is the smallest of seeds. As he continues, he talks about the mustard tree and the birds that nest in its branches. But mustard, as we know, is a ground plant. And if you research how mustard grows you learn that it spreads – so much so that it is sometimes labeled “invasive.”  (In many northern climates it grows as fast as kudzu does here, spreading aggressively and taking over not just yards but entire fields.)

Regardless of whether mustard grows up or grows out, what a wonderful object lesson this is. During this Lenten season as we seek to examine ourselves deeply, it is possible for us to conclude that we don’t have much or any faith. Deep inner work can result in us concluding that we are not growing into the likeness of God and we may even feel as if we are shrinking or withering in our faith.

The good news in this teaching from Jesus is the promise that it only takes a tiny seed. God has already gifted you with enough – patience, kindness, charity, love, joy – for the good and God within you to grow. Christ’s presence in you is something God wants to magnify. He wants his love and compassion to become like mustard, wild and unchecked. He wants his love to be present in every thought and every act, every minute.

We don’t have to go “get” stronger faith. We simply need to look inward. God has already planted and begun great work within us. Let us use this season to let that small seed grow.

Read Lent Week 1
Read Lent Week 3
Read Lent Week 4