Monday, March 29, 2010

A Week Called Holy

"Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
      --The Book of Common Prayer, Prayer for Monday in Holy Week

One of my favorite films is “Grand Canyon”. Danny Glover plays this black guy who lives in the worst section of town, has a hard time making ends meet and just getting by. Life is just exhausting. And sitting on a stoop talking to a new-white friend he tells him about how he get through all he has to face. I go to the Grand Canyon, he says, and just sit there on the ledge—I look out over that great chasm. I look at the colors and the depth and the wonder of it all. And just sitting there in the silence letting my eyes sweep over that vast and wondrous place—I get my bearings and I go back to my life ready to try again. At the end of the film he takes this new buddy and several other people and the movie ends as they just stand there on the edge of that wonder just looking, looking. I’ve paraphrased what Glover said deliberately. But it is the way I remember his words.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. In our church palm branches were everywhere. The kids marched down the aisle following the choir’s procession dangerously waving those palm branches as the children must have done that day outside Jerusalem. But that was yesterday and this is Holy Monday.

I want this week to do for me what Danny Glover’s visit to the Grand Canyon did for him. I want to stop and look and listen until somehow wonder washes over me and inside me—until I am a better person, better able to tackle whatever comes my way. Even dealing in my own way with all the craziness of this age.

Holy Week. Holy means sacred or something more. It is a sense of the numinous the theologians say. Holy is really mystery. It is something you cannot quite describe. It’s like the emotion of falling in love—which also cannot be put into words. It’s like Moses standing there, open-mouthed, before the burning bush. Taking off his shoes in reverence because he felt he was standing on holy ground. Holy means to say “Ahhhhhh” way down deep until it moves us beyond ourselves. Like Danny Glover I will try to stand at the edge of this week called holy and ponder the mystery of it all.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Remembering the Fallen

"Eugene Jackson was 20 years old.
He lied about his age and joined the army
   when he was 16.
His family I'm sure got a telegram
  from the War Department saying
 he died a hero on am important mission,
 when in fact he died on a stretcher
 in a dank basement in Haganau
 crying in agony--while he friends looked
 on helplessly.
He was just one more casualty in a war
 that was supposed to be all but over."
                   --The Band of Brothers

These are our fallen for the last few weeks. Boys, men and women who have given their lives while the rest of us sit home worrying about our health care, our jobs, the barnyard morals of some superstar and this little half-acre we call our home.

Staff Sgt. Richard J. Jordan/ age 29 / Tyler, TX / Died or injuries sustained during a vehicle rollover in Mosul, Iraq / March 16, 2010.

Cpl. Jonathan D. Porto / age 26 / Largo, FL / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 14, 2010.

 Spc. Steven J. Bishop age 29 / Christiansburg, VA / Died while supporting combat operations in Tikrit, Iraq / March 13, 2010.

Pfc . Erin L. McLyman / age 26 / Federal Way, WA / Died of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked her base with mortar fire in Balad, Iraq / March 13, 2010.

Sgt. 1st Class Glen J. Whetten / age 31 / Mesa, ARZ / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his behicle with a roadside bomb near Kandahar, Afghanistan / March 12, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Garrett W. Gamble / age 20 / Sugarland, TX / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 11, 2010.

Sgt. Jonathan J. Richardson / age 24 / Bald Knob, ARK / One of two soldiers killed when insurgents attacked their unit using small arms, indirect and rocket-propelled grenade fires in Khost province, Afghanistan / March 9, 2010.

Pfc. Jason M. Kropat / age 25 / White Lake, NY / Second of two soldiers killed in that attack by rocket-propelled fire in Khost province / March 9, 2010.

Sgt Aaron M. Arthur / age 25 / Lake City, SC / One of two soldiers that died of injuries sustained during a vehicle rollover accident north of Kut, Iraq / March 8, 2010.

Sgt. Lakeshia M. Bailey / age 23 / Columbus, GA / Second soldier that died of injuries sustained in vehicle rollover accident north of Kut, Iraq / March 8, 2010.

Pfc. Nicholas S. Cook / age 19 / Hungry Horse, MON / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire in Kunar province, Afghanistan / March 7, 2010.

Spc. Alan Dikcis / age 21 / Niagara Falls, NY / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, Afghanistan / March 5, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Nigel K. Olsen / age 21 / Orem, Utah / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 4, 2010.

Spc. Anthony A. Paci / age 30 / Rockville, MD / Died of injuries suffered during a vehicle rollover in Gereshk, Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 4, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Carlos A. Aragon / age 19 / Orem, Utah / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 1, 2010.

Spc. Josiah D. Crumpler / age 27 / Hillsboro, NC / one of two paratroopers killed when insurgents attacked their unit using small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fires in Bala Murghab, Badghdis province, Afghanistan / March 1, 2010.

Spc. Matthew D. Huston / age 24 / Athens, GA / Second paratrooper killed when insurgents attacked their unit with rocket-propelled grenade fires in Badghdis province, Afghanistan / March 1, 2010.

Spc. Ian T.D. Gelig / age 25 / Stevenson Ranch, CAL / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan / March 1, 2010.

Sgt. Vincent L. C. Owens / age 21 / Fort Smith, ARK / Died at Forward Operating Base Sharana of wounds suffered earlier than day forces attacked his vehicle using direct fire in Yosof Khel, Afghanistan / March 1, 2010.

Staff Sgt. William S. Ricketts / age 27 / Corinth, MS / Died of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked with small arms fire during a patrol in Bala Murghab, Badghis province Afghanistan / Feb ruary 27, 2010.

Sgt. William C. Spencer / age 40 / Tacoma, WA / Died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany of wounds sustained on February 20 while supporting combat opertaions in Marez, Iraq / February 25, 2010.

Cpl. Daniel T. Leary / age 23 / Youngsville, NC / Died of injuries sustained during a vehicle roll-over in Falluja, Iraq / February 23, 2010.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Palm Sunday Sounds

"They pluck their palm branches and hail Him
   as King,
 Early on Sunday;
They spread out their garments; hosanna 
   they sing,
Early on Sunday,
But where is the noise of their
   hurrying feet,
The crown they would offer,
   the scepter, the seat?
Their King wanders hungry,
   forgot in the street,
Early on Monday."
  -Edwin McNeill Poteat

Ever think about the sounds of Palm Sunday? It all began when Jesus told his disciples to go into a village. There they would find a colt that nobody had ever ridden. It was really a donkey. Not a horse. A donkey. The kind his mother must have ridden when she came to Bethlehem for the first time. Well, they found the animal and the journey began. So we have the first sound of Palm Sunday. Can you hear it? Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. If we identify with most of the crowd we are liable to miss the real sound here. But this is the sound of Palm Sunday. Just a man on a donkey on his way to death.

But there is a second sound that we hear on that Palm Sunday morning. The crowds lined the road. They waved palm branches and threw down their coats. Applause was everywhere and it was a wonderful day. So the gospel writers have given us the second sound of that day. Listen and you can hear it, too. In fact it is inescapable. Clap-Clap...Clap-Clap...Clap-Clap. They cheered. God knows they yelled at the top of their lungs. Surely our Lord must have been pleased with this reception. They cried: “Hosanna! Save us! Save us right now! Save us!” Clap-Clap. Clap-Clap. They wanted a King that would give them what they wanted. And of all the things that yearned for—none of them envisioned a cross. Why kind of a Messiah would that be?

Once I invited George Buttrick to preach one Sunday evening during Holy week. That evening was the second time he had preached that day and he was 82 years old. He chose the text: When Jesus hung on the cross, he could have had a legion of angels to release him but he did not. Now that was real power. Even after all these years we don’t understand it. It never is: Clap-Clap when we come to this Jesus. It is always Clip-clop at the heart of the story.

As the week unfolded the applause grew weaker and weaker: clap…c l a p…c   l   a   p… until Mark would remember before the week ended: “they all forsook him and fled.” Let’s not miss the holy sounds of Palm Sunday: Clip-clop…Clip…clop. For you see if we opt for Clap…Clap we will really will miss Palm Sunday.

Git the Gumm-ent off our Backs

Every once in a while I get something on the Internet that is worth sharing. Frankly, I wish I had come up with this idea. Since the beginning of our country I know there has been a great divide between pro-government and anti-government forces. George Wallace of Alabama fame used this complaint ingenuiously: "Git the gumm-ent off our backs!" It was a way to stop integration in his state and hopefully the nation. He was right of course--without the power of the Federal government behind integration we would still be a segregated society. How in the world could a President say: "Government is the problem" while he is the leader of the government?? If we take the government out of our lives we will be in bad trouble. Here are the words I wish I had written. I dedicate them to all the Tea-partiers:

In protest, I hereby pledge to abstain from the following socialized programs:

•Social Security •Medicare/Medicaid •State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP) ... See More•Police, Fire, and Emergency Services •US Postal Service •Roads and Highways •Air Travel (regulated by the socialist FAA) •The US Railway System •Public Subways and Metro Systems •Public Bus and Lightrail Systems •Rest Areas on Highways •Sidewalks •All Government-Funded Local/State Projects •Public Water and Sewer Services (goodbye socialist toilet, shower, dishwasher, kitchen sink, outdoor hose!) •Public and State Universities and Colleges •Public Primary and Secondary Schools •Sesame Street •Publicly Funded Anti-Drug Use Education for Children •Public Museums •Libraries •Public Parks and Beaches •State and National Parks •Public Zoos •Unemployment Insurance •Municipal Garbage and Recycling Services •Treatment at Any Hospital or Clinic That Ever Received Funding From Local, State or Federal Government (pretty much all of them) •Medical Services and Medications That Were Created or Derived From Any Government Grant or Research Funding (again, pretty much all of them) •Socialist Byproducts of Government Investment Such as Duct Tape and Velcro (Nazi-NASA Inventions) •Use of the Internets, email, and networked computers, as the DoD's ARPANET was the basis for subsequent computer networking •Foodstuffs, Meats, Produce and Crops That Were Grown With, Fed With, Raised With or That Contain Inputs From Crops Grown With Government Subsidies •Clothing Made from Crops (e.g. cotton) That Were Grown With or That Contain Inputs From Government SubsidiesIf a veteran of the government-run socialist US military, I will forego my VA benefits and insist on paying for my own medical careI will not tour socialist government buildings like the Capitol in Washington, D.C.I pledge to never take myself, my family, or my children on a tour of the following types of socialist locations, including but not limited to: •Smithsonian Museums such as the Air and Space Museum or Museum of American History •The socialist Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Monuments •The government-operated Statue of Liberty •The Grand Canyon •The socialist World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorials •The government-run socialist-propaganda location known as Arlington National Cemetery •All other public-funded socialist sites, whether it be in my state or in Washington, DC Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hope After All

"Shall we do without hope? Some days
there will be none. But now
to the dry and dead woods floor
they come again, the first
flowers of the year, the assembly
of the faithful, the beautiful,
wholly given to being.
And in this long season
of machines and mechanical will
there have been small human acts
of compassion, acts of care, work
flowerlike in selfless loveliness.
Leaving hope to the dark
and to a better day,
receive these beauties freely
given, and give thanks.
       --Wendell Berry, Leavings

We’ve heard the names.

A dangerous radical.
Power mad.
Government control of all of life.
Dictatorial spirit.
Destroyer of our financial system.

 These were some of the charges brought against President Franklin Roosevelt when he proposed Social Security in 1935. The National Association of Manufacturers called Social Security the first step toward “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry.” The Chairman of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloane declared “Industry has every reason to be alarmed at the social, economic, and financial implications…The dangers are manifest.” Republican representative John Taber of New York proclaimed: “Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought in here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent the possibility of the employers providing work for the people.” His New York colleague James Wadsworth added, “This bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.” William Randolph Hearst attacked the program as “absolute state socialism” and contended that the initials (National Recovery Administration) really signified “’No Recovery Allowed.’” President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law August 14, 1935.

This Act established a system of unemployment insurance, accident and disability benefits, support for dependent children, and old-age pensions. Life would never be without risks, the President said, but the government could reduce the uncertainty. As he signed the bill he said, “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.” Many who supported this bill felt it did not go far enough. As the years went by the program grew larger and encompassed more people. Interestingly, the President said perhaps health insurance might be added to the program later on. Those words can be found in the splendid book, Traitor To His Class, by H.W. Brands.

 So it should not surprise us that when then-candidate Barack Obama was true to his word when he fought long and hard for health care being a right and not a choice for every citizen in this country. Tuesday, March 23 is an historic day when our President signed the Health Care Bill into law. President after President has dreamed the dream of making sure every citizen had adequate health care. Theodore Roosevelt…Franklin Roosevelt…Harry Truman…Richard Nixon…and Bill Clinton all tried in vain. And it looked like this effort would never pass. Someone said that over 4,000 lobbyists fought long and hard in Washington to defeat this effort. The choreographed rage and sheer hatred directed toward our President has been an outrage. But we have been here before and will be here again. And yet—he believed in this cause—and this is one of the reasons so many people went to the polls and voted for him. He is the people’s President.

The Birmingham News today said that in Alabama alone: 641,527 uninsured would have insurance and 400,000 Alabama patients could become eligible for Medicaid expansion. This bill is far from perfect. Many compromises have had to be made to get to this point. And yet thanks to the hard work of the President and so many in this country—we have opened a door and this is an historic moment. No change comes easily. No change comes without great opposition. This day I am proud, very proud to be an American.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Lost Boys

"Before we kill another child
for righteousness' sake, to serve
some blissful killer's sacred cause,
some bloody patriot's anthem
and his flag, let us leave forever
our ancestral lands, our holy books,
our god thoughtified to the mean
of our smallest selves. Let us go
to the graveyard and lie down
forever among the speechless stones."
             --Wendell Berry,  in Leavings

This war in Iraq and Afghanistan that has taken over 5,000 of our finest men and women must not be forgotten. Even though it has slipped back to the second section of almost every paper, I suggest that you read Dexter Filkins's splendid article accompanied by Ashley Gilbertson's moving photographs. The New York Times Sunday Magazine features six pages of the bedrooms of boys that have died in this seemingly endless war. Pictures often tell stories that words cannot.

Look at the photographs for yourself. The bedroom of a 19 year old from Alexandria Bay, NY. Just a boy's room.  A quilt somebody made. A jam box. A TV. A baseball bat--running shoes. An empty wine bottle and a stuffed teddy bear. There was the bedroom of a 21 year old boy from East Northport, NY. Then there was a 24 year old Marine that will not be coming back home who lived in Downers Grove, Illinois. Books, pictures of tigers on the wall--his shoes still under his bed--the dog lying sadly in the middle of the bed. There was a 20 year old from Livingston, California and two boys from South Carolina. Read for yourself--study the pictures and then pray for all the families with these empty bedrooms and all the loved ones they left behind. We must not forget.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"I was sick and you visited me..."

Maybe we ought to revise the words of the Scripture to read: "I was sick but you are poor...or an immigrant...or don't have a job...or cannot I cannot help you." Is the American Bible only for the well-heeled and the screamers? I am holding my breath and hoping we pass this Health Care Bill. How many Presidents have struggled with this issue? Roosevelt...Truman...Nixon...Clinton...and now, courageously--President Obama. It took guts--real guts to take on this broken health care plan. The Conservative Republicans in the House and the Senate oppose this bill. They talk about "their plan"--but until the President placed this on the country's agenda--there was nary a word from them. And they oppose what now is the crying need of our time. And--the Liberal Democrats have decided that this weak bill should never pass because it is too tame and timid and does little or nothing to help the cause. They want a perfect bill--and this is totally unrealistic.

We have to begin somewhere. And this bill is the beginning of saying loud and clear that health care is a right and not an option. This morning I hear that Dennis Kuchinich will be voting for the passage of this bill. The best thing I have read lately on Health Care comes from Truthdig. Read today's article about Health Care: "Americans Who Can't Wait."

The poet-prophet Wendell Berry says it best in his new book, Leavings.

                               "I know that I have life
                                only insofar as I have love.

                                I have no love
                                Except it comes from Thee.

                                Help me, please, to carry
                                this candle against the wind."

Monday, March 15, 2010


I came back home, dropped my Bible,
took off, my coat and tie.
“Well”, I said, “I’m home.”
“How many were there?” she asked.
“Twelve, I think counting me—maybe fourteen or fifteen.”
“Well that was a waste of time.”
“I’m not too sure about that.”

The building was 150 years old.
There were two in the choir—an old man and a woman.
The fill-in at the piano was young and good.
The music director that directed the choir of two
   must have been a hundred years old.
There was a woman there who told me
   they had been married 57 years
  and just yesterday had put him in
  a nursing home. He was slowly drifting away.
The rest were women, mostly over sixty.

Why did they come?
They came because they were lonesome.
Just to see a familiar face.
They came to listen to the music of the old
   songs even if almost nobody sang.
They came because they had been coming
   all their lives.
Habit and need.
Desperate and hungry.
Hoping to hear some angel sing.
Or maybe just to break the monotony
   of an old creaky house.
They came with their little white envelopes
   hoping that what they gave
   would keep the lights on
   or help the people in Haiti.
They came to pray the “Our Father…”
   and to sing the Doxology.
They wanted to hear a word they didn’t
   hear on the TV or in the Sunday paper.
When it was over, having touched the base
    they hugged,
   and made their way
   to their Buicks and Chevys and
   Lincoln Town Cars.
They drove home glad they had come and
   heard the music and caught at least
   part of what the preacher said.

“Was it worth your time?” she asked,
“Going all the way over there for that handful?”
“I think so,” I said, “I really think so.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finders Keepers

"He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums."
   --James Thurber writing about his editor Ross of the New Yorker

Fred Craddock in his wonderful wise way asks often: Have you ever lost a word? Good question. Looking out at the terrain today—I think we have lost the word, courage. The old song says, “You gotta have heart.” And heart is the Latin root for courage. I don’t see much courage around me today. It’s the reverse of cowardice. Courage enables one to face dangers and difficulties and threats.

Sometimes listening to the news, reading the paper my heart sinks. Am I just hard of hearing or is there an absence of the word, courage today? In Alabama our Legislators cannot possibly let the people of Alabama struggle to update our 1901 Constitution. Lurking in the shadows, of course is the big money that keep them ticking. No, no—the moneyed people say. And so in some ways Alabama is stuck in 1901 where the poor were pitted against the rich and the blacks were pitted against the whites. They’ve lost the word courage in Montgomery, our state capitol. Does anybody wonder why we are close to the bottom of every poll on almost every issue?

Why can’t we deal with health care in Washington? Same reason. Somewhere along the way courage got lost in the shuffle. All those Senators and Congressmen mostly are scared to death. Scared of the voters. Scared of the lobbyists. Scared for their own skins. Scared come November they will be booted out. And so some 36-40 million people still have no health care. And the stories of all the people who lost their health care—seem to fall on deaf ears. We need some folk with guts in Washington that are looking out for more than their backsides. We will be crippled as a people if there are not leaders with courage. And unless we are careful we will be at the bottom of every poll with countries around the world.

The church, of course, isn’t much better. Maybe the church never has stuck her neck out too far. We have pulled up the rear with about every social issue that has come down the pike. Who talks about health care in the church? Who stands up for gay people and all the injustices that still reign down on their heads? Who speaks for illegal immigrants—who pay taxes and have no benefits? Not many stand against the flat-earth folk who are more concerned with smearing Al Gore than deal with climate change and global warming.

But once in a while somebody steps up to the mike and we hear a word we haven’t heard in a long, long time. Courage. And it always makes an incredible difference. That’s why I keep close Daumier’s wonderful drawing of Don Quixote riding his horse, followed by his side-kick tilting windmill after windmill. Remember The Man from La Mancha that set to music his story?
         "To dream the impossible dream,
          To fight the unbeatable foe,
          To bear with unbearable sorrow,
          To run where the brave dare not go…”

Deep in my heart, like our embattled President, I do believe we just might find the word once again.

Friday, March 5, 2010

I Remember Frances

A friend called this morning to tell me that Frances had died. Months ago she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and mercifully she did not live too long after that. I was her Pastor for eight years and she was an utter delight.

Never married, worked for as a Secretary for years and years. It was one of the only jobs a woman could get back then. When her First Baptist Church refused to allow a black lady and her daughter to join the church in 1970 she was one of many who marched out and formed an integrated congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Back then this news was so spectacular that Life Magazine featured a story on the new church. Frances was part of that beginning and stayed until her death.

This little woman with dyed hair and pin curls would come by my door on Sundays. She always hugged me and from time to time as shook my hand she would tell a story. One Sunday, on the way out, she said, “Preacher when you talked about driving this morning, it reminded me of when I started driving. I was 25 years old and had never driven. So I took lessons. And that first day I got into the car with the teacher he said, ‘Crank her up’.” Puzzled she turned the key and the engine started. “Let’s go,” he said. And they started down the street with Frances behind the wheel. When they came to a stop sign Frances asked him what she was supposed to do. Her instructor said, “Ah, hell—run the son of a bitch.” And she did.

When I found out about her tumor I called her up and we talked for a while. She said she wasn’t scared. She said she hoped she wouldn’t suffer too much. She said she was ready to go. I asked her, “Frances, do you remember your driving story?” She was quiet for just a minute and said, “Oh, you remember that old story?” I told her that it was one of my favorite stories and I told it over and over. “Well,” she said, “it was true.” That was my last conversation with her.

I am told she died peacefully in her sleep Friday morning around 6:00. In every church there are those wonderful rare people you never forget. They make ministry fun and worth the effort. She was always there. She always supported her preacher whoever he/she was. She did her part and I think that Church kept her going.

I thank God that I knew her and that our paths criss-crossed for eight years. And as I remember I lift up that wonderful old prayer from the Roman Mass: “Into paradise may the angels lead her; at her coming may the martyrs take her up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead her to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Problem with Living Sacrifices

You could always count it at least four or five times a year. We Baptists give an Invitation to join the church after the sermon. On most Sundays we have as many takers as, say the Episcopalians. Often as the Invitation was extended, down the aisle Mabel would come. She would always hug me, wipe away the tears and whisper that she wanted to rededicate her life. She had messed up and wanted to start all over again. Choir members would roll their eyes, some in the audience would whisper to one another. Bouffant hairdo, gravelly voice from too many cigarettes and booze, she seemed to live from crisis to crisis. Either her marriage or her job or the kids were giving her trouble. Again and again she would march down to the front and members would think, “Well, there she goes again.”

That happened a long time ago and yet I wonder where Mabel is and how she is doing. I wonder if she is still striding down that aisle again and again and asking forgiveness and wanting to start over again. Maybe that’s what Lent is all about. Like Mabel all we poor little sheep have lost our way and need some beginning again. Mabel kept hoping that maybe, just maybe she might begin to get it right. Her job, her kids, her marriage—her broken life.

Elizabeth Elliot said one time that the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. Lent pulls me back to the painful mirror of realism. I read the old words like: “Rend your hearts and not your garments…“Have mercy upon me O God…” “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves…” And I remember that this particular sacrifice—me—has crawled off the altar more often than I like to admit.

So this Lenten season I remember Mabel and I remember my own life. We aren’t that far apart really. Just poor little sheep who can’t seem as much as we try to stay on that altar. But I keep opening the book and bowing my head and hoping that God will, as the book says, “bring his work to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Maybe Yogi Berra was right: “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” I am betting my life that it may just be true.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Subject is Lenten Roses

It's Academy Awards time. People are wondering who will win the Oscars and what picture will be picked as the best. Sometimes, I think the election of the winners nominated by the members of the Academy reflect the time in which we live.

This Lenten season I am remembering something that happened at the Academy at the end of the sixties. Patricia Neal was nominated as Best Actress that particular year. Many have said that her performance in The Subject Was Roses was one of the great moments in Broadway theatre.

Most people have forgotten her personal story. In 1960 she was wheeling her infant son across Madison Avenue in New York when a car hit the baby carriage, smashed it into the back of a bus. The baby was seriously injured and lived but spent months in the hospital and had several operations. Two years later Patricia’s oldest daughter, Olivia got the measles and died suddenly. In 1965 Patricia had three massive brain hemorrhages, five heart attacks. Her speech and vision were impaired and her mind was blunted. It looked like the end. But Patricia Neal fought back. And it was after all these terrible traumas that nearly destroyed her life that she returned to the Broadway stage. Later came the movie. And on Oscar night that year she walked up the steps, onto the stage and was honored as that year’s Best Actress. Those gathered gave her a standing ovation.

After that night one reporter asked her the secret of her survival. After thinking a long time she said it was not courage or anything she was born with. If she had a secret, she said, a large copper plaque over her mantle might hold the key to her endurance. She pointed to the words:
                                               Fear knocked at the door.
                                               Faith answered.
                                               No one was there.

I remembered this story as looked out my window days ago. I saw some flowers blooming back in the woods. The colors just stood out. And I went to look closer. I should have known it: my Lenten roses were blooming. They, along with quince and crocuses are the first signs of spring.

I cannot find out much about the origin of the Lenten rose except the plants have a long history. They are a native of much of Europe. The greatest concentration of the plant can be found in the Balkans. Even in China and parts of Turkey and Syria you can see the Lenten rose.

Why the name? I am not sure except during this holy season when we ponder our lives and our finitude—the Lenten rose reminds me that hope is sure to come. These tiny flowers are a promise that though we are beset by wars and earthquakes and people we love are suffering terribly—this stubborn flower blooms in mid-winter. Maybe Patricia Neal can teach us a lesson for our own lives and our time. Fear does not have the last word. I remember that promise as I look at my Lenten roses.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When God Comes to Church

I love the story Carlyle Marney, the great Baptist preacher used to tell. Tongue-in-cheek he would say that God does not come to church every Sunday. After all if God really is God, the Almighty can do whatever it is the God wants to do. Perhaps God some Sundays simply stays home and reads The New York Times. So why should we come to church? Attendance is waning everywhere and many former churchgoers have opted out. I’ve heard some folk say: Nah, I don’t to church anymore—I home church. But back to the question: why should we go to church. Marney said that we need to put on our clothes Sunday after Sunday and find our places in some pew. Why? Because, the great preacher said, we never know when God will decide to come to church. And if some Sunday when we least expect Yahweh-God, he may just saunter down the aisle and stop at your pew. And if this happens your life will never be the same again.

Our age is starved for some mystery, for some holy, holy—for some moment when we lift our eyes away from the computer and the incessant news and the troubles of our lives and our friends—and see, as Isaiah discovered, God high and lifted up and with a train that filled the temple. Arthur Gordon calls this a touch of wonder.

For John Wesley praying before the altar at London’s Aldersgate Church his heart was “strangely warmed” and his life was changed immeasurably. Frederick Buechner writes that one Sunday at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as George Buttrick was preaching the “great wall” of China fell down and life was forever different. Anne Lamotte tells in Traveling Mercies how slowly she was drawn into a little tiny church in Marin County and she was never the same again.

When God really does come to church lightning strikes and we are turned inside out. So maybe on Sunday morning we ought to put on our clothes and leave the house and walk into the door of some church. Who knows what might just happen?