|DR. JAMES C. HOWELL
August 23, 2015
So a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times there was a fascinating article about the novelist Walker Percy and what he thought about hurricanes. Some of his characters would say the most interesting things about hurricanes. Percy, you know, was from New Orleans and so in a novel like The Moviegoer, Will Barrett says that, "I'm happy when there's a hurricane and other people are" … this is pre-Katrina by the way … "I'm happy when there's a hurricane." He tells the story that he had a date with a young woman named Midge and the date was not going well. Midge was kind of stiff, the conversation wasn't going very well at all, but then they were up in New England and a hurricane was coming and they were caught at a diner. And they stopped and they helped the owner of the diner to board up the place so it could survive the storm and he said suddenly Midge became happy; she began to talk; they began to have a great time together. He says things like, "the hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befouled the sorrowful, old soul. Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. We were able to talk." Other characters in Percy's novels say great things about hurricanes, that in a hurricane you're able to focus; in a hurricane you're able to help other people."
We discovered this when Hurricane Hugo struck Charlotte in 1989. Who thought a hurricane could come to Charlotte? I mean nobody saw that one coming. And when Hugo came, it was so interesting, like the night that Hugo came it was just chaos outside our house. Trees were going down everywhere and then we went out in the morning; it was just this wreckage out there. That was the night that my second child, Grace, chose for the first time to sleep through the night. We're scrambling around trying to pick up stuff in the yard and we remembered, "Oh yeah, we have a child." We'd forgot about her. Now up to that point, we had neighbors and they seemed like nice people. We didn't really know our neighbors. I mean we would see them coming and going; we knew the cars that they drove, and generally the hours that they kept; and we sort of noticed our neighbors, we didn't really know them. When Hugo struck, suddenly we are like best friends cause we're all, we're using each other's grill and what do you got, or what tools do you have; we're helping each other and we're sharing. We're having a good time despite the storm and then a really amazing thing happened. The Duke Power people started getting closer to our house; this had taken forever, this was like day 10. And we started going out to them with coffee and doughnuts to sort of like … I was telling them, I said, "I have a two-year and I have an infant at home. Come over here. Get our electricity on." But as the neighbors knew each other better this amazing thing happened and a couple of us found ourselves talking to the Duke Power guy saying, "You're near our house, but where we really want you to go is over there cause that woman is really having a difficult time right now. And could you just wait on us and get her power on first?" Outside the hurricane we did not know each other and suddenly we're best friends and having a good time. It's like the storm blew something away.
I think for us to be our best selves Paul would suggest that the spirit needs to come and blow some of what we have about us away. Paul says, "Put on the whole armor of God." And we will mistake this if we think okay I've already got, like me and myself and my life, and I'm going to put this gospel stuff on on top of it. I think when Paul talks about putting on the whole armor of God, I think he may have in mind that scene in the Old Testament where the little boy David is about to go out and do combat against the giant Goliath. King Saul comes to David and says, "Here's how you go into battle, wear this my armor." And David put the armor on but it was so big and it was so heavy and clunky and he gave him a big sword that he could hardly handle and David just said I've got to be shed of this. He went out against Goliath armed with just nothing but I guess his faith in God. Paul says, "Put on the armor of God." and then what he describes as the armor of God could not be more insubstantial; could not be more flimsy. Paul says, "Wear truth." And we're tempted to make some politician joke about how truth isn't really effective, truth isn't really what you rely on. I mean truth is so thin, isn't it? Doesn't really help all that much. Paul says, "Wear the breastplate of righteousness." That's the only protection that you have, but Paul says wear righteousness which is utterly insubstantial. It doesn't weigh anything at all, it can't fend anything off. We have our defenses that we have learned to build up. Life is all about security and Paul's saying let that be blown away. Wear a breastplate of righteousness; it doesn't weigh anything. Paul says, "Shod your feet with the gospel of peace." What would that mean for your feet to be shod with peace?
I was thinking about St. Francis of Assisi; he had a very interesting life. He began as a warrior. He was a soldier and he was pretty good at it; he won some distinction in Assisi's battle against Perugia. So he had his armor and then he also though, when he wasn't fighting, he was a fashion icon in his world. His father dealt in French fabric so his father was going to France all the time and then coming back. So Francis had the latest French designs and everyone envied him; he was so cool, he was so popular. But then this amazing thing happened, he had this conversion experience. He got serious about Jesus and so he put away his sword and his helmet and all of his armor and even took his fine French clothing that everyone admired and he just gave it away. And he started wearing just a simple tunic like a poor peasant would wear. He had these fancy belts that he loved to wear and they were bejeweled, but he gave that away to the poor also and just took just a simple rope and tied it around his waist. And he walked around; he didn't carry anything with him except a little book, and it was a book of the gospels and a book of some prayers and that was Francis. He had an amazing thing that happened. This was during the days of the Crusades, right, when Christian armies were marching out of Europe and going into the Middle East. They were fighting the Arab armies there and it just went on and on for years with no one really winning, awful struggle. Francis said I want to go and be a soldier in the Crusades and people thought you used to be soldier, not any more. So he joined a Christian army and they found themselves arrayed at Damietta and the Christian army was here and then there was no man's land, and across there there were the Arab armies and they were staring at one another, and intimidating each other as best they were able. And Francis said, "I will lead the fight." So he walked out across no man's land with no armor, with no weapons, just wearing his peasant's garment and a rope, barefooted, and when he got to the Arab lines they drew their sabers to slaughter this Christian, but then they thought well he doesn't seem dangerous. He seems almost kind of comical. So instead of killing him they took him to the sultan Malek al-Kamil and said here's this guy and Francis began to talk to the sultan and they became friends. And he bought peace in that area for a few weeks until order was restored and they began to fight each other again the people that were armed and had swords and sabers and so on. Francis was unarmed; Francis was disarming. What does it mean for us to let our securities be blown away and to be armed with all of these things in the gospel?
This is the time of year that I do a lot of nagging and cajoling. I know you love my nagging and cajoling. I can only tell you I dislike it more than you do. When I went into the ministry, I didn't think I think God is calling me to nag and cajole people. This just didn't enter my mind. I'm not sure I would have gone for it. And what we nag and cajole you about this time of year is we say we're forming little groups, little Bible study groups, we're starting Disciples and Companions and it'd be good for you to be in a group. Some of you, you nod and you do it and others of you … you're doing it right now ... you nod at me and you don't obey. And we love all of you, no matter what. Let me tell you why actually this is important. This is what James Howell nags and cajoles you about, it's one, we have a really large church and how do you meet people and get to know people well in a large church? You know two weeks ago I preached homecoming at the little first church that I served out of seminary. This is really interesting, like their whole church is a small group. So if you walked in there as a new person, they would know. They would spot you; they're actually good at it. They would embrace you; they would love you cause they hadn't had a new person in years, right? They're a small group. A church like this, I mean, here we have so many people and some people say, "I really struggled to connect with someone." I just need to say you need to find your church within the church and that doesn't happen here, it happens somewhere else. You join one of Nathan's mission teams or you come to Disciple Bible Study or Companions in Christ and you meet people.
Let me tell you why that matters, because this is so important to me. This is why I'm standing in front of you. Is you see I was, I didn't go to church forever and then I had friends kept nagging me and cajoling me to go to church and finally I went. So I was like you, I was sitting out there and the preacher was all right; and the music was pretty good and it was fine. But they kept saying come to a group and I was thinking I'm not a group kind of guy, really, I'm just not a group kind … But finally I went and what I discovered was amazing. Which is that in that group I could open up, I could say here's stuff I don't get, here's stuff I doubt, here's some stuff I kind of know and believe; here's some stuff I wondered about and here's some dreams that I have and here's how lousy last week was. And I found there were people there that loved me and shared their ideas and it's out of that, out of that cauldron that I became who I am. It's like the hurricane, right? It's like I had all these neighbors, but then some wind had to come through and blow all this away and then suddenly we connected and we became friends, and we supported each other and we loved each other. And the other thing is there's some content to all of this stuff.
I read an article years ago by a theologian from Cambridge named Nicholas Lash and it's called Performing the Score. And the analogy that he uses is this, it's that in music you have musical notes that are on a page and we have our musicians up here. Jimmy and Dongho are over on the organ and you should see their music, it's like it's got two hands and feet also; it's amazing. So you have the notes on the page and then our choir, they have music with notes and what they could do is they could get together and they could say, "These notes are really very interesting now aren't they? Oh look at that F sharp, and oh there's an A minor chord, go figure; and oh that's the treble clef." And they could talk about the music and we would fire them from being our choir, right? Cause we don't want them just to talk about the music, we want them to do what? To perform the music; to do what it was intended for. Sometimes in Bible study we make this mistake don't we? We get in a room and we look at the Bible and we say, "Oh, verse four is very interesting, now isn't it. Oh, that reminds me of something in the book of Hebrews." Some of us are really extraordinary at this and none of that is a bad thing except we have to remember that the Bible was written and given to us so that we would, like, do it. So that we would enact what it has to say.
I'm preparing this class on the Lord's Prayer that I'm going to teach on September 8th and I hope you'll come. What's been fascinating to me about the Lord's Prayer is how different it is from the rest of our praying. Like most of our praying is, "Lord help me, or Lord help her, or Lord help him." Right? But in the Lord's Prayer there's no Lord help anybody. The Lord's Prayer seems to be about God. It seems to be about the glory of God. The only thing that the Lord's Prayer really asks for is it says, "Thy kingdom come" Like, what does that mean? To pray to God, "Thy kingdom come." And it sounds passive, you say OK God let your kingdom come, except it seems clear in Jesus' intention that we're a part of that. The theologian Emmet Fox wrote these words about thy kingdom come, "Our work is to bring more and more of God's ideas into concrete manifestation." That is what we are here for. God had all these ideas and God's will is for those ideas to become manifest, is to become real. That is what you and I are here for. We look out at the troubles of the world and it's just awful. There are children …this is unacceptable … there are children in our city who are homeless; who don't have a crack at a good education; who can't get health care. That is unacceptable for us. We have race issues across this country. There's all this stuff that goes on and sometimes we just look out at it and we think oh the world, it's so terrible. I'll just grab mine and get a secure little place for myself, but when we pray, "thy kingdom come" and you do it every week, we're saying Lord you have some ideas about these things and it's up to us to put those into concrete manifestation.
Let me close with this. I've been thinking about this the past week. Once upon a time, a lot of Methodists owned their own hymnal. Like people had a hymnal at home. I don't know how many of you have a hymnal at home. I bet a few of you do, but not, couple of hands I see going up, you have hymnals at home. These aren't the property of the church by the way. You too can have one at home. Don't take these home. You can't buy one. Actually, you can take it home, we'll figure it out. But so what some people have done over the years is they've meditated on the words of these hymns during the week. This is really interesting. Then when you sing it, it's really powerful and profound. So there's a hymn I've been thinking about lately and I want you to think about it with me. So, get a hymnal and turn … we're not going to sing, we're just going to look … turn to 377. Number 377. It's one of my favorite hymns; lot of people's favorite hymn and what's interesting when you get to the page is this is true of all the hymns. This is a little music lesson. Down at the bottom, at the right, there are always some words in all capital letters and that's the name of the tune that we sing to. So in this case the name of the tune is Ville du Havre. I'm terrible at French; pardon me for that. It's French. Ville du Havre. Why in the world do they have a French title and Ville du Havre as it turns out is the name of a ship that sank in 1878. Why do you name a hymn for a ship that sank? And the reason is the guy who wrote the rest of the hymn, the words, is a guy named Horatio Spafford. He was not on that ship, but his wife and his four daughters were. He had four little girls, eleven, nine, five and two. They were all planning to travel to France, but Horatio Spafford had some business commitment, some real estate deal that he had to attend to so he couldn't get on board. He said that he would come later and so they were sailing across the Atlantic and they crashed into another ship. The mother, Horatio's wife, managed to survive somehow. She was floating around on a wooden plank; somebody rescued her. But the four daughters were lost at sea. And when Mrs. Spafford finally got to the other side, she sent a telegram to her husband that said, "I alone survived." So he got on the next ship for France to go and join his wife and he's going across the Atlantic, and at a certain point the captain came to Horatio and said this is about the point where that ship went down, where your daughters were lost. As Horatio Spafford thought about that, these words began to form in his head and it became this hymn. It goes like this …
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well; it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
And then we can understand why he would utter this fourth stanza, given all he'd had to deal with.
Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Remarkable. How could he say such words? And the only answer is he had been schooled in the things of God. He'd read his Scriptures; he'd studied; he'd prayed; he'd grown closer to God. He believed that no matter what he had suffered, it still was well. That God one day would descend. And that's remarkable and moving, but there's something I think even better that I have to share with you about Horatio Spafford. He got over to France and reunited with his wife. They had a couple more children and what they could have done at that point was say we're done with God, he didn't protect our children. Or they could have said we're just going home, we've suffered enough. But what they did is really interesting. They moved to Israel; they moved to Jerusalem. This is in the late 1800s. They had two other daughters and they moved there and with a few other Americans and they formed what was called the American Colony. Now if you've been to Jerusalem with me, a few of you have and those of you who haven't, you'll want to come after I tell you this story. It's that we often in Jerusalem stay at a hotel called the Olive Tree. The people who go with me always discover that right around the corner from the Olive Tree, there is this bar … I won't share more about that …but there's this bar called the Cellar bar. It's in the cellar of a hotel called the American Colony. This is where Horatio Spafford and some other Americans moved and they lived there and then eventually they formed a little inn for guests who came there and now there's this hotel. And what they did when they got to Jerusalem, they just wanted to be close to where Jesus had lived, that's why they went there. But once they got there, they discovered that there was poverty all around. The children, they were hungry, the children couldn't get an education, terrible conditions, living conditions for people. So what they started doing is they started taking care of children in Jerusalem. They opened a little orphanage, started a feeding program, education program and the children, this is important, the children were Muslim and Jewish. They did not come to those children and say, "Hey you got to be Christian like we are. If you become Christian like we are, then we'll do stuff for you." No, they just loved them. They said you children are suffering, we want to help you; we want to love you. Therefore the Muslims trusted the Spaffords and the others in the American Colony. The Jewish families trusted the Spaffords and the others in that American Colony.
So many troubles in the world and God wants us to say, "Thy kingdom come." God wants us to learn God's ideas, then make them manifest. That is the way that people live when there's a hurricane. When there's a hurricane, you don't just mind your own business, you get out of the house, you do anything you can for anybody who has any kind of need. I think what we want is for the Holy Spirit to blow on us like some hurricane, blow on us as individuals, blow on us as a church and we'll get busy being the people of God, knowing each other, loving each other, serving. It's what we'll sing in our last hymn, which will say, "for not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums. With deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes." That's it, deeds of love and mercy. Thy Kingdom come; it's like a hurricane. Thanks be to God.
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