Saturday, March 28, 2009

In a Time of Famine

(This photograph was taken from the bulletin board of St. Mary the Virgin University Church, Oxford, England.)

Through the years they have come in one by one. They tell me stories—sometimes terrible stories. Sometimes they are desperate. Often they don’t believe God has heard their cries at all. Once in a while they say they do not believe in God at all. But they sit across from me—reaching often for that box of Kleenex close by. Haltingly, slowly—ever so slowly they pour it out as best they can. Confessions. Sins. Doubts. Anger and rage. Questions—many questions. Sometimes when they leave I wonder how in the world they will make it.

Later on I see them on the street or at the store. They’re smiling. They’ve gotten over their terrible burden—at least temporarily. Some have gone on to better jobs and some have made do with what they have. Some after a painful divorce found someone else and are happy. I am amazed as I walk away. Once upon a time life was dark and there seemed to be no way out. And yet there they stood smiling and going on with life.

I have few answers for these miracles. On my pious days I say it is grace or answered prayers or maybe sometimes just fortitude on their parts. Who knows? But Psalm 33.18-19 says: “Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine." Some very wise writer must have come to see that God really is in it with us all. That we will be delivered. As Isaiah puts it: “carried on eagles’ wings.” There is nothing too big for God to tackle. And that, the Psalmist says, even includes death. Our death or the death of someone close to us.

How will we stand it? God will deliver us. But there’s more here: we are kept alive in a time of famine. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates this last part of the verse: “in lean times he keeps body and soul together.” But I think I like the famine idea better. So many are predicting hard times for us all. None of us want that. And yet—whatever comes—even famine, even death—God is here and that will be enough.

Dear Lord, sometimes we get scared when we face things we cannot handle or we lose people we love--yet you promise to deliver us and I claim that promise for all of us. But more--your word says that even in the hardest of times you are there and you keep us alive. Thank you that you are always here. Amen

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Dark

I preached last Sunday. I haven’t done that since Christmas. It felt good—very good. I used the gospel lectionary text for the day. John 3.14-21. In reading the text I discovered something I’ve never seen before. Usually I stop at John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that whosoever believes…” The last few years I have been overwhelmed by that word, whosoever. The utter inclusivity of the gospel takes my breath away. We, in the church have pared down that whosoever—but John 3.16 enlarges the circle until it includes everyone. But then I read the 19th verse: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light…”And the thought hit me: The whosoever are all those God loves, but in this verse 19 the whosoever now become the people. And the people love darkness rather than light. Hmm. The people.

We know the people that love the dark. All those others. We can wax pretty strong about those that spend their time shooting the lights out of everything. Surely it is the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Surely it is always those countries that rape and torture in Zimbabwe and other countries. Those monsters that deal in human trafficking. We could even expand the people to include those that sold us down the river financially—and put us in the mess we’re in. I have been told there are over 600 hate groups in this country—surely they follow the darkness.

But this term, the people is as inclusive as God’s love. We all gravitate toward the darkness. John puts it even stronger—we love the darkness more than the light. To truly hear these words could help us deal with our piousity. We all have a shadow side. So do all our institutions. Like Paul what we want to do, we don’t do—and all those things we wanted to shy away from, we find ourselves doing. So we all have to contend with the powers and principalities of darkness. Yet John has already told us: “the light has come into the world and the darkness cannot put it out.” Which means that the light is stronger than the darkness.

Maybe with this sea of unemployment, this gloomy, gloomy talk of the economy or that neighbor who has a stroke and won’t be coming back to her house—maybe we all need to hear that the light will triumph after all.

I have some friends in a deep-South town. She is slowly going blind. Nothing can heal those wounded eyes. And knowing how bleak their future is, their Christmas letter moved me terribly. They told the true story of little eleven-year-old Antoine Mack who lived in the worst of the slums in Boston inner city. He was handpicked along with some others to attend a summer camp for two weeks that the Episcopal Church ran. He had never been outside his city. He had never seen a cow or looked out on a sea of grass. After two wonderful weeks, Antoine was packing to go back to the tiny constricted place he called home. And he sat down and wrote this poem:

The night will never stay,
The night will still flow by
Though a million stars in the milky way
pin it to the sky.

Though bound with the blowing wind,
and buckled by the moon,
The night will always slip away,
Like sorrow, or a tune.

I think Antoine is on to something. We all do gravitate to the darkness and it is all around us. And yet—the light is stronger than any dark. And in that kindly light we all can find our way.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Some church slipped a card under my door inviting me to their Easter events. In bold headlines they proclaimed: Easter for Families! What about all those other folk? When we say the word family most of us think about a husband and a wife and 2.5 children. What about everybody else? What about that teenager who found her way to church on her own. Her parents wouldn’t be caught dead there. Behind her sits John whose wife just left him last month. Family? Hmm. There is a single mother trying desperately to keep it together for her and her two kids. What about Jim and Larry that came by the church, saw the Families welcome sign and were pretty sure their relationship would not fit that church’s word for family? They just kept on going. Mary never married and both her parents are dead. Sally had a baby out of wedlock. Her own family turned their back on her. Or that widow in her eighties eats alone day after day. Does this word family apply to all of these? The old tattered bumper sticker read: “Hate is not a family value.” Yeah to that. But what about exclusion is not a family value? Even unintentional exclusion. Surely that church with its advertisement under every door in my diverse neighborhood just might welcome everyone. I hope so. Jesus stretched the definition of family when he opened his arms and took everybody in. Later, Paul would remember his Lord’s actions when he wrote: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”(Ephesians 2.19) Look around you next Sunday at who sits on your pews. Reckon that word, also applies to everyone at your church?

This little word reminds me of a story. When a mother lost her husband, her daughter tried to get her to sell her house and move to her town so she could look after her. The woman balked and did not want to break up housekeeping. Finally she gave in and moved. After the woman had unpacked most of her boxes, she went down to the local church the next Sunday. When the invitation was given she joined. After church she called her daughter and told her the good news. “Mother,” the girl said, “Don’t you think this is a little hasty?” And the mother said, “Land sakes honey, when the join the church you never have to be lonesome again.” Maybe on just one Sunday the little lady may have heard the word also and knew it included her.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sitting on the Bench

Ball players get frustrated when the coach consigns them to the bench. Who wants to sit on a bench when you could be out there on the court helping your team? Watching is not the same as playing. Now shift gears. Think Church instead of basketball court. Preachers don’t sit on benches. They are usually standing up and usually talking. Since the end of December I have been sitting on a bench almost every Sunday. Preachers know better than anybody that sitting there and listening is not the same as standing and telling.

Bench sitting does not come natural for me. My wife keeps whispering at Church: “Sit still…quit fidgeting.” I am trying hard to adjust but it ain’t easy. But I must confess on Saturday nights when the burden of Sunday is not on my shoulders it feels wonderful. When everyone else is still around the dinner table I don't have to excuse myself now and go off to some quiet place and look over my sermon for the next day. Sometimes I used to feel like I didn’t have any word from the Lord and yet I would have to get up there on Sunday morning and say something. What I learned was that it didn't always depend on me. The treasure really does come in clay pots from the Dollar Store! (That’s the preacher.) And on those Sundays when I thought the sermon fell flat often people would come by and tell me how much what I said helped. I wanted to say: “Huh?” But I would smile and thank them. Later I remembered that it wasn't about me after all. God (and I hope this is not sounding too pious) sometimes has taken the feeblest efforts of the Reverend and has spoken tenderly to somebody out there.

But I don’t have to struggle with the Sunday sermon- burdens much now. I am learning how not to squirm so much. I am moved some Sundays when “I am not in charge” to really hear the words of the some hymn and wipe away a tear during the prayer time. I have even been amazed at how moved I have been by some sermon—and my Pastor is very good. But I have been touched more by some little child or someone sitting alone that buried his wife last week. Like the athletes I would much rather be in the game but I learning slowly that grace can even come from sitting on a hard squeaky bench.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Holy Ground

“How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes, they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life."
-Katherine Mansfield, 1888-1923

I have been thinking lately of places that have touched my life. Holy ground, really. Places that, even though I have not been there in years are as fresh as when I was living there. Places where some bush burned and some voice spoke and life glistened and wonder happened. One of my favorite places is a park down Mercer Street in Princeton, New Jersey. My son, knowing my love of that place took pictures and gave them to me the next Christmas. Here is a poem I wrote about that special place.

Sometimes in the middle of the madness—
I remember a park.

The trees are old as God
And the fields are green as green
And here and there are benches for stopping.

The park isn’t big.
It covers, maybe a block
Or two.
But there the birds sing
And the squirrels play—
And on that spot I found great peace.

Sometimes, in the middle of this madness,
I remember a park

I wonder what it is in the middle of your madness that brings you peace.