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Reflections/Essays

Friends and Last Meals (Leighton Ford)

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This morning I read the passage in Luke 22 where Jesus eats his final Passover meal.

He told his disciples that he had longed to eat that meal with them before his passion and suffering.

Who would I want to eat with, if it was my last meal?

Who would you want to eat with, if it was yours?

How can you let them know what they mean to you?

And .. can you imagine that Jesus wants to eat with you?

The Evangelist’s Bait

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The cross is vital to our preaching, for it is here that Jesus Christ becomes either the stone of stumbling or the rock of salvation. It is in the cross that man’s sinful pride faces its ultimate test. The atonement is crucial, because it strikes at the very heart of sin – not what a person does but what he or she is, her egocentricity, his demand to own his own life and to be ultimately for his own decisions.

Whatever other responsibilities a person may bear for their own life, there is one we cannot bear – the responsibility for our sin and guilt against God. That, another must bear for us.

James Denney once said that that cross is like the barb on the fisherman’s hook. He told of a friend who had lost his bait while fishing, without catching anything. When he pulled his line in he found that the bait had broken off, so that the fish had taken the bait but escaped.

So, said Denney, “The condemnation of our sins in Christ upon His cross is the barb on the hook. If you leave that out of your Gospel, I do not deny that your bait will be taken, but you will not catch men. You will not create in sinful human hearts that attitude to Christ which created the New Testament. You will not annihilate pride, and make Christ the Alpha and Omega in man’s redemption”.

Leighton Ford

Adapted from The Christian Persuader.

I Am An Immigrant (Leighton Ford)

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I am an immigrant.  A documented one. And a grateful one.

When I was in high school my future brother-in-law Billy Graham came to speak in my home town in Canada. He recommended that I apply to his alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois.

Once accepted I applied for a student visa. Instead I got a green card to be a permanent resident. The Immigration Service was more than generous!

Later this immigrant married a North Carolina girl and moved to Charlotte. On a special day, in a large hall on the north side, I raised my hand to pledge allegiance to my new country. I was and am proud to be a US citizen.

Immigration is a controversial topic now. Who should or should not be admitted? How should they be vetted? Of course we need clear and humane laws. But in the controversy we may miss a larger issue: what does it mean to be an immigrant? And aren’t we all immigrants?

Migration is an ongoing part of creation.  The birds in our back yard are migratory birds, moving north and south with the seasons.

Human history is the story of great migrant movements. Streams of human population flowed from Africa north and west and east into Europe and Asia.  Our first nations migrated across a land bridge from Asia into North America. Native Americans had to absorb religious refugees and traders from Europe who came here seeking freedom and fortune.

Migrations have brought conflicts but also have been enriching.  The respected historian William McNeill writes “that the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” Our time is no different, except the contacts and conflicts are now global.

The Bible is full of immigrant stories.  Abraham is called to leave home and go to an unknown land. Joseph is sold to slave traders to captivity in Egypt where he became a powerful leader.  The people of Israeli escape Egypt to settle in the Holy Land. A Moabite woman Ruth marries a Jewish man. When he dies she could have returned home but in famous words she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people shall be my people.” Jews taken in captivity to Babylon, are told by God to seek the peace of the city where they would now live.

And, significantly for us Christians, the parents of Jesus are refugees who take their infant son to Egypt to escape being killed by the paranoid King Herod.

The Bible could almost be named “The Book of the Great Migrations”!

The apostle Paul saw the hand of God in these movements. Addressing the philosophers in Athens he said that God allotted the times and boundaries and movements of the nations “so that they would search for God … and find him.”

And that is happening here. When I met with student Christian leaders at the Harvard Club most of them were Asian-Americans. One of the largest churches in New York City started with immigrants from Nigeria. Koreans make up one of the largest student groups at Charlotte’s own Gordon-Conwell Seminary. One Assembly of God district in the southeast has more churches than many national denominations!

Ed Stetzer, an astute observer of religion trends, notes that “predominantly white churches are declining. Yet Pew Research tells us that white churches are greying while growing churches are browning— in part because of the influx of immigrants.”

I hope my fellow Christian believers will see immigration not through a lens of fear, but through the eyes of faith: as an opportunity to welcome and serve.

Recently my wife Jeanie and I were on a crowded elevator in a Florida hotel with another guest whose name tag read “Donald Graham, Co-Founder THE DREAM, US”

“That’s a good name,” Jeanie said, “I’m a Graham too.” He asked where from and when she said North Carolina he asked if she knew the Rev. Billy Graham.

“He’s my brother,” she said. He broke out into smile, gave her a huge hug, and said, “I’m so honored to meet you. He’s a wonderful man.”

“What’s THE DREAM?” I asked. He explained it is a national scholarship fund for DREAMers, immigrant young people, building the American dream one student at a time.

“I think my brother would like that,” Jeanie said.

I think so too. And I want to live, not haunted by fears, but as hopeful for God’s dream for the dreamers, and for all of us.

 

This article appeared originally in the Charlotte Observer, April 1, 2017

Watching Nouwen During Lent (Leighton Ford)

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In the last few days I have been listening to a series by the late Henri Nouwen on The Life of the Beloved.

I never met Henri, and he died (quite young) before I might have.

But through his writings – and this video series – I feel as I have met him. His face is strong, his voice powerful.

The video series can be found on YouTube – here.

As I see him speaking to a large group  I hear God’s voice – the “first voice” as Nouwen describes it – saying again what I personally need to hear, over and over.

The voice that said to Jesus, “You are my beloved” speaks also to you and me.

These talks have been good for me these Lenten days – they may be for you too!

Leighton Ford

Can The Church Be Revived? (Leighton Ford)

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Can the church be revived? One gazes at the apathy, the division, the jealousy, the materialism and feels like an Ezekiel set in the midst of a valley full of bones. Surely many a pastor has echoed Ezekiel’s sigh “Lord they were very dry”.

“Can these bones live?” asked the Lord. And Ezekiel answered in effect “Only God knows”.

But the Lord God commanded and the prophet spoke his word and the bones came together and the flesh upon the bones. Then the breath of God blew”,,,and they lived and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (Ezekiel 37:10).

Is this not how revival will come? With an agonizing awareness of our deadening lack of spiritual power. With an honest confession of our total inability to do anything about it, of the failure of our absurd attempts at artificial respiration…

God’s visitations come at a time of hungering, a time of breaking up, a  time of sowing, a time of resting, and then a time of reaping (Mark 4:26-29).

Adapted from The Christian Persuader

A Lenten Trapeze (Leighton Ford)

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Years ago the Swiss therapist and spiritual guide Paul Tournier caught my attention with a dramatic image comparing life to a trapeze performance in a circus.

The trapeze artist grasps the bar of a swing, launches out, swings back and forth, higher and higher, until at the farthest point he or she lets go, trusting their partner to swing out at just the right time to reach out, clasp arms, and swing them to safety on the other side.

Just imagining such a moment makes my stomach clutch, and my breath catch! It also makes me realize how apt Tournier’s image is for this Lenten season, a time to let go, and reach out.

The Bible is filled with stories of this risky movement. Abraham is called to leave the security of his ancestral home, and to go out by faith to a land he did not know. The disciples of Jesus leave the boats and livelihood and families, saying “We have left all to follow you.”
Jesus himself said, “I have power to lay my life down, and to take it up again.”

Notice how his letting go is tied to the certainty of resurrection.

Paul’s sees himself not as a trapeze performer but a runner. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Can you picture yourself, this Lenten season, as the trapeze artist or the runner, “letting go, and reaching out”?

Several years ago I endured what was to me a year of loss: young leaders I have mentored facing life-threatening illnesses; my brother-in-law Billy reaching his 95th birthday but growing weaker; the traumatic death of my dog Wrangler, my close companion for nine years.

“I feel that everything is going away,” I told a friend.” She surprised me by asking, “What time does God’s store close?”

I thought back to my parents’ jewelry store, which closed at 6pm every day except weekends. Then I realized that God’s store does not close! His grace is available 24/7 for every letting go, and every reaching out.

As I look back over my life I remember painful partings, letting go of “attachments” which had seemed absolutely vital, even wondering whether life would be whole again. But God was calling through loss to gain, letting go of the past to enter into God’s future.

Each of us has certain “attachments”, habits or people, or even addictions or possessions which we clutch for security. And each of us is again and again called to “detachment” in order to trust God more.

I suggest two questions to ask as you embark on your Lenten journey.

What do I need to let go?
What unfinished business is there that is holding you back – of hurt, or dreams, or failure, or the normal patterns of the last year? Try holding out your hands, visualize placing those concerns in them, then turn them over and open them, releasing them into God’s care.

To what do I need to reach out? To what new adventure or challenge may God be calling you? Turn your hands upward, open them and lift them, and receive at least a token of God’s grace.

As the Quaker Thomas Kelly wrote,
(God) plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment. And (God) hurls the world into our hearts, where we and (God) together carry it in infinitely tender love.

So this Lent – let go – reach out – trust God.

Leighton Ford
(From The Charlotte Observer, March 1, 2014)

Civilized? How About Just Civil?

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Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. He said he thought it was a good idea!.

Consider these words of William H. McNeill, a Canadian (!) who taught at the University of Chicago. Arnold Toynbee described his book The Rise of The West as the most lucid narrative presentation of world history that he knew. It’s a pretty hefty volume in both senses – weight and weightiness.

“Civilizations may be likened to mountain ranges, rising through aeons of geologic time, only to have the forces of erosion slowly but ineluctably nibble them down to the level of their surroundings. Within the far shorter time span of human history, civilizations, too are liable to erosion as the special constellation of circumstances which provoked their rise passes away.”

Does that make you wonder where we are as a “civilization” – certainly in terms of our civility?

Leighton Ford

A Secular Jesus-Follower?

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Can one be a follower of Jesus and still be a secularist? How is Jesus perceived and understood by those who are outside the faith? What does such a person have to teach us about evangelism and the way we present the unique Christ in the modern world? Fascinating essay from a USA Today columnist, Tom Krattenmaker.

Krattenmaker is an avowed secularist, the author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. He was raised a Catholic, but dropped out as he grew to maturity. He rejected the church and her teachings, but always found himself fascinated by Jesus. He just couldn’t shake him from his mind. He explains that he doubts God’s existence, and doesn’t believe in Jesus’ saving actions on the cross. For Tom, there is no forgiveness necessary, no eternal life in heaven, no resurrection, no need for church attendance. He rejects the religious claims in Christianity, but believes Jesus is the answer if people would only know him and engage him and seriously follow him.

“In the pantheon of philosophers, prophets, teachers, artists, and moral exemplars, and sages from the ages, one stands out for me as a particularly promising figure for our time. He is a figure of unusual wisdom and deeply moving strangeness who calls me to reconceive the orientation of my own life and the manner in which I engage my fellow humans. His story compels me to access my often-reluctant generosity and pull myself out of my self-centered worries and obsessions. His example has motivated me to befriend people in all manner of categories that are not my own – Muslims, evangelical Christians, LGBT people, and so on – and sympathetically tell their stories on the op-ed pages of the nation’s largest newspaper. This figure’s inspiration has changed the way I treat the supposed nobodies whom I could easily get away with mistreating. His message and manner, I find, address our culture’s maladies and malaises amazingly well, as they do my own. I do not claim there is only one figure or source from whom we can learn and draw inspiration, who we can emulate. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and others have much to offer, and this is not an either-or exploration we are going on in this book. But one figure stands out. That figure is Jesus.”

A Humble Leader? (Leighton Ford)

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Jeanie and I went to see her big brother Billy at his Montreat home last week. At ninety-eight years of age his hearing and speech are limited, but his vital signs are good.

I asked his oldest daughter Gigi over lunch whether she thought of her father as a great man, considering that he has for longer than I can remember been on the Most Admired list.

(And I was thinking of how often the word “great” has been used recently)

Gigi was pensive. Then she said that she didn’t think of him as great much in past years, just as her father.

“But,” she said, “I do think he is the humblest man I have ever known. When he got a compliment he would point up, shake his head, and say all credit goes to God.”

“I know,” she said, “that all leaders have some ego and some narcissism. But always I remember that my father wanted the glory to go only to God.”

Hmm. A great and humble leader. For him I am thankful.

Leighton Ford