My friend and most favored of theologians and spiritual writers Frederick Schmidt shared this 1996 vintage video of a prayer that Eric Clapton wrote and performed with Luciano Pavarotti.

As I told Fred, watching it gave me chills–and does it every time I watch.

My friend John Toth's mother in Vienna in 1966, where she and John found freedom after a daring escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

My friend John Toth’s mother in Vienna in 1966, where she and John found their first year of freedom after a daring escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

Back in the day I worked at The Houston Chronicle with a fellow reporter and friend named John Toth, who left the Chron years ago and became the owner, editor and publisher of the weekly Bulletin in Brazoria County, Texas.

When John was 10, he and his mother made a daring escape from Hungary to escape the tyranny of communism behind the Iron Curtain. Today John shared the story of that escape on his Facebook page and gave me permission to re-print his story in his own words:

    “On the morning of March 6, 1966 in Budapest, Hungary, my mother and I boarded a train headed for Vienna, Austria. With forged papers and an altered passport, we slipped through the Iron Curtain and started a new life.

    “I was 10 years old. My mother took this photo near the street where we lived in Vienna in the winter of 1966. Less than a year later, we landed in the USA. Forty-nine years ago today, my life changed forever, as we embarked on a great adventure.

    “I thought I was going on vacation,” John said. “I found out about the plan the next morning. It took about two years of planning before we boarded that train. She was a brave woman, for sure. She took a big risk, and it paid off.

    “We received political asylum status and flew to New York in October 1967. I spoke German and Hungarian, but over the decades have lost much of the German. The USA was the only country that would allow us in. The rest didn’t want a single mom and kid.

    “We would have gone anywhere by then. Our visas were expiring, and the Austrians would not extend them. We believed that the other countries just didn’t want a possible welfare case. They didn’t know mom, though. She ran her own small company in Vienna. and we were doing very well. The Austrians, though, would not let us stay.”

John’s father was supposed to join them eventually, but came under too much scrutiny and the reunion never happened.

Proud to say that John is a friend, and one whose story makes you appreciate the freedom that most of us take for granted.

And whose story of his brave mom makes you go “Wow!”–that’s like something out of a movie!

John and his wife Sharon Toth with their family.

John and his wife Sharon Toth with their family.

Although God allows grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. (My italics for emphasis.)”

— Lamentations 3: 32-33

The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Haynes, a Methodist pastor of many and very many years, gives a rather lengthy but readable critique below of the kind of “Calvinist” theology persistent in so many churches today–even, ironically, many United Methodist churches.

That’s ironic because John and Charles Wesley, the Anglican priests who founded the Methodist movement that evolved into the Methodist church, were opposed to the Calvinist theology of predestination. They believed, as I do and as Dr. Haynes and most Methodists and so many other Christians believe, that God’s omnipotence is God’s power, not God’s character.

As Dr. Haynes says, God’s character is love.

Rick Warren's book of Calvinist theology took the Christian world by storm, but you don't have to be a Methodist to appreciate the Wesleyan theology you'll find in this excellent book from Dr. Don Haynes.

Rick Warren’s book of Calvinist theology took the Christian world by storm, but you don’t have to be a Methodist to appreciate the Wesleyan theology you’ll find in this excellent book from Dr. Don Haynes.

Like Dr. Haynes, I think the Wesley brothers would be disturbed that so many Methodist churches joined in the once-trendy study of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, a book that is way more Southern Baptist and fundamentalist than anything you’ll find in the prolific sermons and writings of John Wesley and traditional Methodist preaching of grace and free-will theology.

At any rate, the following piece from Dr. Haynes, taken from the digital United Methodist Reporter is well worth reading and thinking about no matter what your church affiliation:

By Dr. Donald W. Haynes

Both St. Augustine and John Calvin began their theology with an assumption common to us all—God is omnipotent, all-powerful.

If God is all-powerful, then we most logically resort to a fatalistic conclusion that God makes happen whatever happens. God also is omniscient—all-knowing. Most conclude that “to foreknow is to predestinate.” That is, if God knows what is going to happen—like when and of what disease we will become afflicted, or when and under what circumstances we will die—then God must be causing that to happen.

It is for this reason that many Christians across the spectrum of denominations refer to “God’s plan.” When John Milton, an English Puritan and a Calvinist, wrote Paradise Lost, his stated purpose was “to justify the ways of God to man.” We still are working at that!

A cousin of mine, who was also a minister, just died with pancreatic cancer at age fifty-eight. A former church member and friend of mine in his middle seventies begins chemo this week for pancreatic cancer that has metastasized. A fellow church member, mid-eighties, has a recurrence of breast cancer. A former colleague on a church staff has ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A long time friend in her seventh year with the persistently debilitating disease Cerebella Ataxia is in a wheelchair and now can no longer speak clearly. A dear friend’s brother just died from causes related to prolonged alcoholism. One of my four closest friends just called: “Don, I have a malignant tumor in my throat.” In all such situations and other heartaches in our journey we ask of God, “Why?”

Whenever bad things happen to good people some good Christians will absorb their grief under the doctrinal umbrella of what they call “God’s plan.” One grief-stricken sufferer wrote, “Our wishes are not God’s plan and I try to understand.” She also said on the phone, “I am so angry that I can’t cry. I don’t know what to pray.”

Rev. Dr. Haynes: "I am compelled to ask you, dear reader, to look more closely and critically at what looks like a comfortable theology—that God is in total control of every detail of our destinies! It is comforting up to a point; then it becomes disenchanting."

Rev. Dr. Haynes: “I am compelled to ask you, dear reader, to look more closely and critically at what looks like a comfortable theology—that God is in total control of every detail of our destinies! It is comforting up to a point; then it becomes disenchanting.”

We must recognize that the Boko Haram in Nigeria who captured 276 girls to use for their sexual pleasure have some perverted interpretation of a random sura in the Quran that justifies their horrible sin. Jihadist Muslims who murdered the Jewish staff of a French magazine were convinced by their warped tutors that they were acting out the will of God—the “plan” of God for killing infidels.

Long ago, the Christians in Salem, Massachusetts thought it God’s plan for them to label women as “witches” and put them to death.

My mother was a devout Methodist and did not think she was a Calvinist! Yet as a child I remember one of her favorite sayings when bad things happened to good people was, “The Lord knows best.” She even said that when my Daddy died from cancer at age forty-nine. I was therefore 12 years old when I “sorta” became a theologian.

At Sunday school I was taught that God loved me. I concluded when Daddy contracted cancer that if God loved me, God must love Daddy who had just been converted to Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But there I got stuck! When Mama said, “The Lord knows best,” she was implying that the Lord took Daddy from us in the prime of his life—both in his young age and his new faith.

Almost everyone either owns or knows about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life that has outsold everything except the Holy Bible and the Quran. Rick Warren is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and founder-pastor of Saddleback Church in California, which is basically Baptist. Methodists are, theologically, not Calvinists who believe in pre-destination, but thousands of Methodist churches used Warren’s book for small groups to study. Millions of people who have never read the Bible have read Rick Warren’s book. Rick is pretty much responsible for chucking the old term “pre-destination” and re-marketing it as “God’s plan.”

Warren wrote, “God decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death.” Of course, he quotes scripture! We all do that to justify our theology! So did the Devil when he was tempting Jesus (Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10)! Rick pushed his belief further, saying that the conception of every child is planned by God: “God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ that God had in mind. They had the DNA God wanted to make you.” Wow! This means that when you go to the “premie” ward of a hospital and see the children born addicted to crack cocaine at birth because of the mother’s addiction—that is God’s plan. That means that when babies are born with birth defects, that is God’s plan. That means that even abortions must be God’s plan if God determines “the date of our death.” That also means that every person who dies of an accident or victim of a crime or casualty in a war simply had “a time to die.” Does not Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 say, “There is a time for everything, for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die….”?

    “We just saw the movie “Unbroken,” about the life of Louis Zamberino who was shot down in the Pacific in World War II, spent 47 days on a lifeboat only to be captured by the Japanese and was kept over two years in a concentration camp. Now, did God control which planes on that mission were shot down and which ones returned to base? Of the crew who landed in the ocean, did God control which ones survived the crash and which ones were drowned?”


We just saw the movie “Unbroken,” about the life of Louis Zamberino who was shot down in the Pacific in World War II, spent 47 days on a lifeboat only to be captured by the Japanese and was kept over two years in a concentration camp. Now, did God control which planes on that mission were shot down and which ones returned to base? Of the crew who landed in the ocean, did God control which ones survived the crash and which ones were drowned? In the concentration camp, did God predestine the ones who would survive the brutality? In Germany, did God plan the date of the deaths of the more than 6,000,000 Jews who died at the orders of Adolph Hitler? If it were “their time to die,” does that let Hitler off the hook? What about the killing of Kurdish Christians today by ISIS, or the beheading of prisoners?
Do we see God’s will in Psalm 139:16—“written in the book all the days that were formed for me”? Or, do we read Jesus words at the conclusion of Luke’s quote from Jesus: “Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for bread will be given a stone, or asks for a fish will be given a scorpion?”

Then Jesus said, and on this I base my understanding of God’s will for each of us: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” And Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” I love James 1:13 &17—“No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God…himself tempts no one… every generous act of giving… is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no shadow of change.”

Really, if God had predestined or planned everything to the most minute detail, including the time and circumstances of our death, why exercise or eat right or even go to a doctor? Think of the diseases, even plagues, in history that were attributed to the will of God only to be found to have been caused by mosquitoes or sewage-saturated water! My grandfather died of appendicitis and had lost three children to tuberculosis or the flu epidemic, one to a farm accident, and one to diphtheria. It is likely that all would have lived longer in the late 20th century than they did in the earlier years. Did God’s will change for the cause and time of death? Did medical science interfere with the will of God? When Dr. James Simpson of Scotland developed chloroform, the clergy opposed its use because they thundered from their pulpits that pain in childbirth is God’s punishment of women for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden! Two famous evangelists blamed the destruction of the World Trade Towers on God who was punishing America for the sin of homosexual lifestyles! What? Even the Muslim Jihadists were agents of God whose name is Love!

Come, let us reason this out. John Wesley’s ministry in England was in a time that the doctrine of Calvinism dominated the Church of England. Wesley had a fundamental problem with God’s being the author of evil, or the cause of the bad things that happen to good people. But what to do with the foundational belief in the omnipotence of God?


    “When I was nineteen years old, I became the pastor of a church. One afternoon as I returned from seminary, I was told a child had been killed on a bike, just in front of his mother’s eyes as she sat on the front porch. As I climbed her steps she said to me, “You are the third preacher to come. If you are here, like them, to tell me Buddy’s death is God’s will, get the hell off my porch.”


Wesley, in the doctrinal lineage of Jacob Arminius of Holland, concluded after much intellectual struggle and biblical study that God’s omnipotence is God’s power, not God’s character. God’s character is love: “God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” “We know and believe the love that God has for us because God is love…we love because God first loved us (I John 4:16 & 19).”

“Aha,” concluded the Oxford professor John Wesley! This means that God’s love (the essence of God’s character) trumps God’s power. In like manner, parents have total power over infants and small children. They can “tie them to the bedpost” or keep them locked in a closet if they use only their power. But with that capacity of total control, there is the spirit of parental love. The normal behavior of a loving parent is to gradually teach the baby what it means to avoid the hot stove because the baby will be burned, or to hold Mommy’s hand or the toddler may get lost. With maturity comes the parental discipline of teaching that good choices bring good consequences and bad choices make bad consequences. Then comes the scary reality that our child will be affected by the behavior of other people and that both must live in a universe where natural law is impersonal: “The wind blows where it will (John 3:8).” Jesus said, “…for He makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45).” Wesley preached that “predestination is not plain scriptural doctrine; it is inconsistent with the written word that speaks of God’s universal offer of grace, his invitations, promises, and threatenings.” God revealed to Peter that “God shows no partiality between persons (Acts 10:34).”

So what about using the term “God’s plan”? Well, it sounds more like a corporate strategy for the future of the company! It sounds programmed. The word “plan” would be best replaced with the word “relationship.” We are God’s children and God is our heavenly Father. God relates to us much like the most loving parents relate to their children—“love and warning,” “warning and love.”

I believe that even the microbes and cells of most infinitesimal size are not confined to a “plan.” Scientists find freedom of movement in every molecule and atom. This freedom allows some cells to metastasize, to “do their own thing,” and suddenly a normal cell or organ is cancerous. Some diseases are genetic; some are caused by environmental exposure to material like asbestos or lint in mills, or high decibel noise; some are caused by what we eat!

When I was nineteen years old, I became the pastor of a church. One afternoon as I returned from seminary, I was told a child had been killed on a bike, just in front of his mother’s eyes as she sat on the front porch. As I climbed her steps she said to me, “You are the third preacher to come. If you are here, like them, to tell me Buddy’s death is God’s will, get the hell off my porch.” That day, I recalled my father’s death by cancer when he was forty-nine, and committed my theology to that of Jacob Arminius and John Wesley, not John Calvin.

While I respect my fellow Christians who believe that everything happens in accordance with God’s Plan, I demur. If God controls the bad and the good, then we are robots. We do not live our lives as if we have no control. We seek God’s guidance, we believe in God’s impartial, unconditional love. I like Lamentations 3:32-33:

“Although God allows grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

Ultra-rich Kim Kardashian, sort of a poster girl for excess wealth and celebrity and media coverage of her ilk.

Ultra-rich Kim Kardashian, sort of a poster girl for excess wealth and celebrity and media coverage of her ilk.

If you went to the Sunday, Feb. 15 “HOME” page at The Houston Chronicle’s no-pay, on-line edition, you saw that the big “lead story” on what amounts to a front page was one headlined:

“Ultra-rich kids show off toys”

It was a story about rich “kids”–twenty-something darlings, actually–who share social media selfies and other pictures of their fabulous adventures in glamorous hot-spots around the world, complete with pictures of the extravagant “toys” they buy along the way.

The Chronicle’s blurb beneath the Instagram pictures snapped by these fabulously wealthy young folks was:

    “These ‘Richstagramers’ have a message: Their winter is better than yours. With their parents’ money to burn, they jet-set around the globe, and promptly post their exploits on social media for the world to see. Enjoy.”

[NOTE TO AMERICA’S HOMELESS KIDS: Yes, their winter is way better than yours, homeless kids on the frigid streets of America! Get a job!]

* * * *

Once you had “enjoyed” this kind of news(?) on the Chronicle’s digital front page–this at a time when Houston’s biggest industry, which is oil, is slashing jobs every day–you could click on to one of these stories right beneath that lead story:

The ridiculous stuff wealthy people buy

(True to the headline’s word, wealthy people pay ridiculous money for ridiculous stuff; but then, we’ve known that for many years thanks to the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue.)

Check out Houston celebrity selfies

10 lessons to learn from the rich

Mind you, this was the dominant “news” package on Sunday afternoon, when news was breaking that some seriously nasty people had beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, a “hot-spot” of a way different kind.

* * * *

Look, news feature stories have their place. That place is just not on the front page of a major newspaper that is the only one in town in one of the biggest, oil-rich cities in the free world. And it’s sure not supposed to be a newspaper’s role to lift up a slacker of a “kid” with too much of daddy’s money to burn as somebody to aspire to be.

The Chronicle, a paper where I enjoyed much of a rewarding and I dare say somewhat successful career in print journalism, does do a lot of solid, professional reporting, when it’s not glorifying the Houston Rich and the Rich of The World, the class that gave us the so-called “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street, who helped to create a lot of new wealth, only to create some disastrous new poverty.

And in the interest of fair and balanced blogging, I’ll acknowledge that the best papers in the word—-perhaps the socially conscious New York Times more than most–have a long history of glorifying wealth, fame, extravagance and celebrity. They just don’t do it almost daily on the front pages of any digital editions, as The Chronicle has taken to doing.

I must say once more for the record that there’s nothing wrong with being rich, even “ultra-rich,” since it’s not money that is the root of all evil, but greed and lust for money and the power of it to corrupt even, say, preachers who start out with little money and a lot of Christian humility, only to lose their way when the offering plates overflow and the books and videos turn some serious money. And then there’s priests who take vows of poverty and run with the rich while living like the rich. (Bless you, Pope Francis, for being a reformist who could be an example for a lot of preachers in tall-steeple churches in my own beloved Protestant denomination.)

I’ve always maintained that I want to be rich, even “ultra-rich,” because I like to think I’m an incorruptible preacher, knowing good and well that nobody on this side of the Kingdom is incorruptible.

Still, I like to think I could live a more comfortable and convenient life and ensure a better life for my kids and grandkids while putting my wealth to work making the world more comfortable, convenient and just for a lot of people who don’t have the means for comfort and conveniences in life.

Conveniences like clean water as opposed to the kind that kills, or creature comforts like food or a roof. I’m talking about the kind of “comfort food” that can relieve “food insecurity” in America and reduce starvation rates in places like Haiti, where “mud pies” made of dirt and shortening are ingested by children to mimic what feels like somewhat of a fuller stomach.

* * * *

So I don’t hate the rich, which ain’t to say I won’t rap them (and newspapers) every chance I get for excesses at the expense of the poor and powerless. Hating on the rich usually stems from the sin of conscious or unconscious envy or reverse snobbery anyway.

And I’m not a fuddy-duddy killjoy. I watch my share of TV shows and read or follow stories about the rich and famous myself. Like most news and information consumers, I get a certain pleasure from following news from the celebrity- and glamour-related media. I’ll be tuning in to the Oscars next week to be dazzled like a billion viewers, rich and poor, in far-flung places around the world, by Hollywood’s “beautiful people.”

But come on, Houston Chronicle and so many others in the media. The excessive coverage of people living ostentatious lives is excessively poor form.

And yet, as a philosophical and theological matter, I wonder what the reaction would be from we the American people if we were inundated–day in and day out–with serious, meaningful, illuminating media coverage and “lifestyle” stories about people in our own America who are barely scraping by, if not living so far down in the socio-economic scale that they don’t have a home?

What if the Houston media dominated the front page and TV news broadcasts with as much or more focus on Houston’s poor, and on social ills stemming directly from poverty, as it focuses on meaningless drivel about the rich?

How about stories about the daily lives of busboys or dishwashers at work in the 5-star banquet rooms of hotels where politicians raise billions of dollars for thoroughly corruptible politicians on the left and right alike?

How about mixing things up with stories about sweatshops in poverty-plagued countries that keep the prices of consumer goods in America affordable? Where are those stories played up to an excessive extent on the front pages and the media in general?

Obviously, there’s more public interest–the public being you and me–in the mindless escapism of reading or watching news about the rich and famous, complete with so much juicy gossip.

And oh yeah–how we love to see the rich and famous fall from grace while the media pile on like 300-pound defensive lineman.

The preacher in me has to say this: We have seen the enemy, Pogo, and it’s the season for Christians (Lent) to confess and turn and think about what Jesus and the great Jewish prophets who were his predecessors would have to say about the State of the Union as portrayed in the media.

* * * *

The old newspaper scribe in me is “old school” and idealistic enough to believe that a newspaper’s primary mission comports perfectly with the prophetic tradition in the Judean-Christian tradition: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That entails the constant revealing and speaking of truth to power. And it so happens that “powerful” and “rich” are typically synonymous.

A newspaper or news agency is supposed to be the watchdog that keeps the rich and powerful as well as government in check, lest they run over the powerless poor and marginalized and weak among us—what Jesus described as “the least.”

If we’re honest, we all have to confess that we don’t like too much serious news anyway, and least of all news about the poor and marginalized and all that riff-raff on the perennial “other side of the tracks.” So the media give us what we want—a lot of puff stuff and drivel like stories about narcissistic kids who grew up in gated mansions and who have too much time and too much of daddy’s money to burn, or stories about “10 lessons we can learn from the rich,” including many of the rich who wear diamond crosses around their necks.

The cross of Christ does make for some nice jewelry, and never mind that the real cross was soaked in the blood of a young man born in a barnyard to a humble and poor mom and dad who promptly had to illegally cross borders lest they had their heads chopped off and quite possibly served on silver platters.

As a reporter-turned-preacher, I wonder what Jesus–the great “Afflicter” and thorn in the side of the corruptible or corrupted rich and powerful–might make of all this?

Or the Apostle James–who grew up with Jesus–who wrote in his short but powerful epistle:

    “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really
    believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

    — James 2: 1-7

This tasteful diamond cross pendant is only $7,500, and scrubbed of  the blood of Jesus. I've no problem with the rich, as so many people of devout faith are generous and humble do such admirable good works with their wealth. My problem is with greed and excess, especially at the expense of the poor and powerless.

This tasteful diamond cross pendant is only $7,500, and scrubbed of the blood of Jesus. I’ve no problem with the rich, as so many people of devout faith are generous and humble do such admirable good works with their wealth. My problem is with greed and excess, especially at the expense of the poor and powerless.

The Christian Holy Season that begins on this Ash Wednesday can’t be commercialized, trivialized and vulgarized the way the culture has done all the above to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Remembering that “we are dust and to dust we return” to initiate a genuinely somber holy season is too much heavy fare for stimulating sales and advertising or for exploitation by self-anointed, chest-thumping Christians on a news channel who purport to be saving Christmas in a “War” of their own making.

That such a “War” makes for greater ratings that make for greater profits and Christmas bonuses is like giving yourself an extravagant Christmas present.

The Holy Season can't be commercialized, trivialized, vulgarized and exploited.  Watercolor by Christian artist James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Holy Season can’t be commercialized, trivialized, vulgarized and exploited. Watercolor by Christian artist James Tissot (1836-1902)

Ash Wednesday is based somewhat on Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18, where Jesus says:

“Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.”

What follows below is a primer on Ash Wednesday from United Methodist Communications writer Joe Lovino.

I’d also commend to you a think piece (click here) about the meaning of “repentance” writ by Frederick Schmidt, a friend who happens to be one of my favorite Christian writers and thinkers.

Have a Holy Day.

    A http://www.UMC.org feature by Joe Iovino

    One Wednesday a year, sometime in February or March, you notice someone at work, school, or elsewhere with a smudge on her forehead. It looks as if she missed a spot when washing. Then you see another who looks as though he needs to glance in the mirror. By the time you see the third, you realize it is Ash Wednesday and these passersby must have received the imposition of ashes.

    This practice we use to mark the first day of Lent may seem odd. People go to church mid-week to have a cleric place dirt on their foreheads.

    In the early days of the church, it was even more dramatic. Pastors did not dip their thumbs into the ashes to draw the shape of a cross on your forehead. Instead, they poured or sprinkled ashes over your head.

    Under any other circumstances, most would run from ashes. We avoid cleaning fireplaces for fear of the filth from them, yet we participate in this practice that is growing in popularity. In fact, the receiving of ashes seems to connect with all sorts of people.

    Several United Methodist pastors will be taking their vials of ashes to the street this Ash Wednesday, to meet people where they are.

    In Clearwater, Florida, the Rev. Emily Oliver of Skycrest United Methodist Church will be applying ashes to the foreheads of those who drive into the church parking lot on the morning of February 18.

    In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Rev. Kim Kinsey will spend much of her day on the busy sidewalk in front of Christ United Methodist Church with her pyxis of ashes. Last year she made the sign of the cross on the forehead of one she describes as “tattooed head to foot,” and adults from a nearby housing complex for those with developmental disabilities.

    Why ashes?
    In “A Service for Worship for Ash Wednesday” in the United Methodist Book of Worship, two suggestions of what worship leaders may say as they make the sign of the cross on another’s forehead are offered: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Each points to an aspect of what the ashes represent.

    Remember that you are dust . . . .
    Ashes were an ancient symbol of our humanity. In Genesis, we read that God formed human beings out of the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word translated dust, is occasionally translated ashes elsewhere.

    When Abraham felt the need to acknowledge the difference between him, a human being, and the infinite God, he referred to himself as dust and ashes. “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord,” he said, “I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).

    . . . . and to dust you shall return
    Our humanity also calls to mind our mortality.

    After expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the first human beings are told by God, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). We know the day is coming for each of us when we will return to dust.

    We wear black as a sign of mourning. Ancient people wore ashes. For example, a priest named Modecai puts on sackcloth and ashes to grieve the many deaths he sees coming from an order King Ahasuerus gives to kill all Jewish people (Esther 4:1-3). The prophet Jeremiah later calls the people of God to “roll in ashes” as a way of mourning the coming devastation from an opposing army (Jeremiah 6:26).

    Receiving the imposition of ashes is a powerful way to confront our humanity and mortality. They remind us that we are not God, but God’s good creation. In them we recognize that our bodies will not last forever, and come face-to-face with the reality of our eventual death.

    Repent. . . .
    Ashes also signify our sorrow for the mistakes we have made. People in ancient times wore sackcloth and ashes as a way of expressing their repentance of their sins.

    When Jonah reluctantly preached to the people of Nineveh after the giant fish spit him up on the beach, the King and his people put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. God saw this act of repentance and spared the people (Jonah 3:1-10).

    In the New Testament Jesus mentions this practice. Warning the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida Jesus said, “if the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives and put on funeral clothes and ashes a long time ago.” (Matthew 11:21 CEB).

    The dried palms from the previous Palm Sunday are burned to make the ashes used for Ash Wednesday.

    When we participate in the service of ashes, we confront our sin. We recognize our inability to live up to all God has created us to be, and our need to be forgiven. No matter how often we go to church, how far we have come in our spiritual journeys, how accomplished we may feel, each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

    The psalms waved the previous Palm Sunday to welcome Jesus as our King, have been burned to form the ashes. In some sense, they serve as a reminder of how far we fall short of living up to the glory of Christ.

    On the first day of Lent, we come before God recognizing our humanity and repenting of our sin.

    . . . believe the gospel

    While this may sound fatalistic, it is not the end of the story. Lent leads to Easter, the day we celebrate that though our bodies are temporary and our lives are flawed, a day of resurrection will come when we will live in the presence of God forever.

    One Wednesday every year we go to church remembering who we are, and hopeful of who we can be.

Brian Birdwell, a Texas state senator who sponsored one of the two god-awful gun bills being greased for quick passage in Texas, said in debate on one of the bills that he was standing up for “rights that are granted from God.”

He’s hardly the only lawmaker in Texas who is convinced that gun rights are God given.

As one of my colleagues in ministry said on Facebook, “I must have missed that in seminary.”

Sen. Birdwell and the other legislators who believe this kind of theology would make some good ayatollahs.

Militant proponents of open-carry laws went around to lawmakers’ offices the other day and made such threatening and intimidating comments to those opposing their “God-given rights” to carry that legislators have since installed panic buttons in their offices.

What would Jesus think?

God approved this message.

God approved this message.

Here’s the story from The Houston Chronicle’s Austin Bureau reporter Lauren McGaughy:

AUSTIN – Sporting a pair of red, white and blue patent leather “freedom boots,” Amy Hedtke sat for hours in the Senate hearing room Thursday before her two minutes at the mic to urge state lawmakers to summon the fortitude to pass unlicensed open carry.

Earlier, the now-seemingly ubiquitous gun activist Kory Watkins promised fierce primary challenges to any Republican who opposed it, while Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia argued the opposite, stopping just short of calling the proposals an unfunded mandate on local law enforcement.

But while the sometimes rancorous nine-hour hearing prompted more than 100 people to pack the state Capitol on Thursday to voice their opinions on the Lone Star State’s gun laws, the fate of “historic” open carry and campus carry bills was all but decided before the first witness even sat down.

As expected, the Senate Committee on State Affairs approved both proposals by a partisan vote of 7-2.

The only dissenters were Democratic Sens. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo and Rodney Ellis of Houston.

Senate Bill 11 by Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would allow concealed handgun license holders to carry on college campuses. Senate Bill 17 by Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, would legalize the open carry of handguns with a license. Under current law, it’s legal for Texans to openly carry long arms like rifles, but the same has not been true of handguns for more than 125 years.

Both now are headed to the Senate floor, where the Republican-dominated chamber will hear a spate of amendments expected to add restrictions to the proposals.

First time passed in Senate
Thursday’s vote was historic, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, marking the first time an open carry bill has passed in the Senate, and if approved by both chambers it will serve only to underline the rightward shift the Legislature took after last year’s election.

“I made a promise to help pass both open carry and campus carry and have worked hard on the issue,” Patrick said in a statement late Thursday. “We are now one step closer to passing these two historic bills out of the Senate.”

While the final vote tally was expected, the public testimony often was quite the reverse, with opponents conjuring images of the Wild West and pro-gun activists demanding lawmakers give Texans back their “God-given rights” to bear arms.

Watkins, the controversial leader of Open Carry Tarrant County, made an appearance sans his signature trilby hat and told Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike he and his group would seek to oust them if they voted to require Texans to pass a background check and secure a license to open carry handguns.

“I will walk around until my feet bleed to make sure you’re never an elected official again,” said Watkins, who has gained state and national notoriety – and elicited plenty of criticism – for his controversial tactics in pushing unlicensed open carry, what advocates call “constitutional carry.”

Much of the debate over the two bills, however, was marked by less-inflammatory rhetoric. Early in the day, top law enforcement officials disagreed over Estes’ bill, with Garcia and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo raising concerns with both bills and Sheriffs’ Association of Texas President A.J. Louderback of Jackson County supporting them.

Legalizing the open carry of handguns “is going to deplete me from responding to an already growing community,” said Garcia. “Law enforcement already has great challenges with limited resources.”

Acevedo made a veiled reference to the open carry groups who packed the room when he said “it’s a very small but vocal community that supports it,” urging lawmakers not to “assume that noise equates to support.”

Campus shooting survivors
Most of the higher education leaders and college students who testified before the committee also had concerns about the bills, citing the unique campus environment that already encourages heightened emotions and fears. Claire James, née Wilson, a survivor of the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower shooting, also spoke against allowing concealed handguns on campus.

“I was never able to bear children again,” said James, who was eight months pregnant when former Marine Charles Whitman shot her through the belly on that fateful August afternoon. Virginia Tech alumnus Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 shooting perpetrated by Seung-Hui Cho, also spoke against the bill.

At the urging of Patrick, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp also weighed in on the proposal. He broke with precedent by saying he wouldn’t personally be concerned if campus carry was passed, and confirmed the system would take no formal stance on the bill.

New UT System Chancellor William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL and former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, has taken a decidedly different stance on the issue, sending a formal letter to top leaders that the bills would make college campuses “less safe.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, the senators agreed to amend Birdwell’s bill. If both bills are passed and signed into law, the amendment would ensure open carry is still banned at colleges and universities.

NRA lobbyist Tara Micha said the national gun rights group agreed with that decision: “I would agree with what Sen. Birdwell said that it has never been our intent with concealed carry on campus bills to sneak through open carry on campus.”

With an increasingly conservative state Legislature, both bills are likely to pass this session. Even the committee’s Democrats noted the probable outcome. Ellis, joking about halfway through the day-long hearing, said his status in the political minority would mean he would likely be packing if the proposals prove successful.

“If it does pass, I assure you I will be open carrying,” he said. He then urged his colleagues who vote against his bills to arm themselves as well, to a few uncomfortable chuckles.

A biblical "fool for Christ" who felt close to God in sharing the suffering of hurting people.

A biblical “fool for Christ” who felt close to God in sharing and relieving the suffering of hurting people.

All the others news paled today, all the intense hand-wringing over a journalist/celebrity and Jon Stewart’s “shocking” announcement that he’s leaving the Daily Show (how will the Republic stand?) and where to buy the best Valentine chocolate features, and of course, the ongoing news about Kanye West and poor Beyonce and the latest, over-the-top Grammy Awards.

I watched the grueling press conference in which the loved ones of Kayla Jean Mueller spoke by turns of her free-spirited, fun-loving side and her serious, God-loving, compassionate activist side, and was promptly reduced to tears as one by one and two by two they stepped up to the mike to pay tribute and remember her.

    “I will always seek God. Some people find God in church,” she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011. “Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

Here are some of the quotes from the family statement:

    We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller, has lost her life.

    “Kayla was a compassionate and devoted humanitarian. She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace. . .

    “Kayla was drawn to help those displaced by the Syrian civil war. She first traveled to Turkey in December, 2012 to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. She told us of the great joy she took in helping Syrian children and their families.

    “We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.

    “Our hearts are breaking for our only daughter, but we will continue on in peace, dignity, and love for her.

    “We remain heartbroken, also, for the families of the other captives who did not make it home safely and who remain in our thoughts and prayers.

    “We pray for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria.”

Videos and more here about this high-quality woman.

I don’t pretend to know what to do to put an end to ISIS and its sickness in terms of responding militarily as well as economically, politically and any other way.

Spiritually, I do have the power to join Kayla’s family in praying for a peaceful resolution to the horror house in Syria and the region that the 26-year-old and too many other Americans and other Westerners and a Jordanian warrior have given their all for in their pursuits of truth and peace and justice.

To many people that power of prayer seems like nothing except foolishness but a “fool for Christ” like Kayla would get it.


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