Saturday, July 31, 2010

Are We Killing Off Our Ministers?

"I've never seen a time when preachers have been treated so badly."
             --Denominational official

I sat in a room this past week with 13 ministers and their spouses. They had come from all over the country. The thread that tied them all together was that they had all been dismissed from the churches they had served. Some were young, just starting out—some were grey-haired and in their sixties. Some had been Senior Pastors and some had been on some church’s staff.

It was a week of pain and heartbreak. Tears ran down our faces as we heard story after story of abuse, betrayal and trumped-up charges. It wasn’t that all those that gathered were perfect—some had made terrible mistakes. Some had been na├»ve and thought this would never happen to them. A couple after serving for almost a decade in one place found themselves swept away casually as if all those years and work did not matter.

The toll on their lives has been enormous. Marriages have suffered. Finances have taken a nosedive. Their children have lost their stable base and find themselves uprooted from friends and schools and familiarity. Some families have been left without hospital insurance. Churches are fragmented, lost members and left weak by the action of some little group in their church. The depression in that circle last week was formidable.

A therapist offered advice. A spiritual director pointed the way. We had lawyers, nutritionists, and business folk to talk about resumes. Those gathered took a personality type assessment and received personal counseling. Most of the leaders of this retreat had been through a similar experience of dismissal and termination.

We scattered on Friday afternoon. They were all going back to what they had left—children wondering about the future and houses that needed to be put on the market. They were men and women ministers who had no idea what the future held. But they went away with a hope they had found in some who had walked that way and come out on the far side. They had discovered some handles of where they might go for help. There were phone numbers to call and people to talk with that would understand.

The best statistics tell us that 1600 ministers are dismissed or forced to resign every month. In 1996 Leadership Magazine pointed out that 22.8% of all ministers will be forced out before their careers end. 67% of those affected will face forced termination more than once. The Barna Institute says that a US pastor is forced out every six minutes.

I left that retreat thinking that I wished that lay-people could sit in that room and listen to the stories and hear the pain that churches cause. I wish they could ponder the collateral damage: clergy families forced to deal with financial and vocational crises, their children watching from the sidelines and wondering about the pain their parents feel, the depression that falls like a fog on these pastors and their families not to speak of the erosion of trust and love that should flow from churches.

Surely there must be a better way to resolve conflict. Outside the city of Oxford, England about three miles away you come to the village of Iffley. The Church, St. Mary of the Virgin dates back to 1170 AD. It is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England. I walked inside that church and on the wall in the narthex is a large wooden board. Written across the top was the message: Incumbents (ministers) who have served this parish. Underneath were the names and years of those that served the congregation. The first Priest mentioned began in 1170. Every minister’s name was mentioned from 1170 to 1279. Then there was a gap and in 1432 the names began again and are listed to the present. Many of those vicars had served for over fifty, sixty years. I know that arrangement for calling priests and ministers was far different from our own—but I thought of that wall and all those names as I drove away home from that retreat.

The Barna Institute has reported that ministers who stay ten years are more are likely to have their most effective years as Pastors. Surely we must find a way to deal with the hard side of church life than just dismissing ministers and staff persons and starting over again. Sometimes this is necessary—but 1600 dismissals every month? Did Christ have this in mind when he told Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my church?”

(The above photographs are from St. Mary the Virgin Church in Iffley, England.)

(The organization that sponsored this retreat is called, fittingly, Ministering to Ministers. This particular retreat was the 95th retreat they have held throughout the country. Over 918 persons have come through these retreats from 36 denominations from the US, Canada and the Bahamas. MTM offers a helping hand at no charge to these persons who come to these retreats. You can find out more about MTM through their web site, or contacting the Executive Director, Charles Chandler at 1-804-594-2556.)

(August 8, NY Times had a great article on clergy suffering from burnout, "Congregations Gone Wild." Worth pondering.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hang in There!

"Well son, I'll tell you:
  Life for me ain't been no crystal stair;
  It's had tacks in it,
  And splinters,
  And boards torn up,
  And places with no carpet on the floor--
  But all the time
  I'se been a-climbin' on,
  And reachin' landin's,
  And turnin' corners,
  And sometimes goin' in the dark
  Where there ain't been no light.
  So, boy, don't you turn back.
  Don't you set down on the steps
  'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
  Don't you fall now--
  For I'se still goin', honey,
  I'se still climbin',
  And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
   --Langston Hughes , "Mother to Son"

Two weeks ago we turned to Luke’s gospel and talked about the story of the Good Samaritan. Last week we were talking about Mary and Martha and how we needed both women not just the meditative and not just the worker. Now today we turn to Luke 11 where Luke gives his rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples had been with Jesus long enough to know that prayer was important to him. And so they came together and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” It was a strange request in a way. These were pious Jews—they prayed several times a day and so this request at first seemed peculiar. But I don’t think they were asking about technique. I think it was more than that because Jesus gave them a prayer that we Christians around the world still say Sunday after Sunday. I was tempted just to stop and focus on the prayer…for it is a powerful prayer indeed and covers all we need to know about praying. It helps us understand the difference between our wants and our real needs.

He Gave Them a Parable

But when Jesus finished “Our Father which art in heaven…” he wasn’t through talking about prayer. He gave them a parable. And if you listen closely you can hear the humor in what he had to say. It seems that a traveler on a journey in that hot land traveled early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the blazing heat of the day. And so he came late to his friend’s house sometime around midnight. Now in that culture you always fed your guests when they arrived. They would not think of just sending their guests to bed. But the host, to his horror found that his cupboard was absolutely bare. What was he going to do? Well, he knew his neighbor would have plenty of bread—they always cooked more than they needed. So—even though it was midnight he knew he had to serve his guest. So—he knocked on his friend’s door in the middle of the night. No answer. So he knocked a little louder. And from inside he heard a voice say, “Who is it?” And through the closed door he told his friend he needed three loaves for his guest that had just arrived. I can just imagine what the response was. The expletive is deleted.

Picture the scene. The home was one room. At night they would gather all the animals in so they would not be stolen or killed. Into that room. Then there was a little raised platform where the family slept. Most of the families had lots of children and the arrangement was: the animals were closest to the door, then the children and there were several—and then his wife—and then the man. He told the neighbor to go away. It was the middle of the night. And he did not want to wake up the animals or his kids and particularly his wife. Why nobody would have gotten any sleep for the rest of the night. You would have thought that would have settled it. But no—the man kept knocking on the door. He was going to wake up everybody. So the man of the house stumbled around in the dark found the loaves, tried to step over his wife and Sallie and Junior and little Suzie and Bobby—hopefully he would not wake up the animals. He cracked the door, hoping the animals would not get out and gave the man the bread and growled quietly: “Go.” And Jesus said: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” If the man hadn’t kept knocking he never would have gotten the bread.

Why did Jesus follow the Lord’s Prayer with this story? This parable has always bothered me. It seems to say if we pester God long enough he will finally give in. Like I used to do when my children would keep pulling at my coattail wanting something. “Daddy, Daddy” they would say. And finally, in frustration I would say: “OK.” Is this what Jesus was saying? I don’t think so. The key word to understanding this story is the word, persistence. Because of his persistence he will get up and give his neighbor the bread. Because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Persistence is the Key

Persistence. It was a real problem for the early church. The central problem they faced week after week was apostasy—falling away. People who started and couldn’t continue. It was understandable. To be a Christian was hard business in the Roman world. Every citizen including slaves had to go and stand before a public statue of Caesar and say: “Caesar is Lord.” And when these Christians would shake their heads and say, “No, Jesus is Lord” they lost jobs, were hounded out of town and many of them were crucified. And so many dropped out along the way. Paul would say of Demas, “Demas has deserted me and gone back to Thessalonica.” It happened again and again.

Now am I rambling? What does persistence have to do with prayer? Everything, really. Prayer is not only what we say—it is what we do. The old adage may fit here: What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you say. Prayer, then is what we do. I love the way one person puts it. Pray without ceasing—when necessary use words.

Prayer is more than Words

Our problem we think we have to bow our heads and close our eyes and say some words to God. Maybe and maybe not. Let me tell you a story. Weeks ago I visited a good, good friend and we both knew that his days were numbered. And so we had a good visit but it was heavy and he talked about how hard it would be to leave his wife and grandchildren and not be able to see them grow up. We talked about that trips we took to Paris and Oberammergau. We talked about the birthday celebrations and going to the Beach together. And when I started to go I told him, “I’m not going to pray—I am afraid I would just break up and couldn’t get through it—but what we’ve done today I think is a prayer.” You see, prayer really is sometimes what you do.

One preacher who understood this used to say, “Mama when I go to the Revivals the preachers are always talking about their sainted mothers and how they always found them on their knees, by the bed, out in the corn crib or in the kitchen—everywhere. Always praying. I never have seen you do that.” And his mother said, “Son with children like mine you have to pray as you go.” So there are a lot of ways to knock on the prayer door with actions as well as words. We may have to pray as we do—but we have to keep at it.

To worship is to pray. Ritual is very much a part of the Christian faith. We get up and put our clothes on Sunday morning and come to church week after week. Carlyle Marney used to say it is one of the most important things that we are to do. And then he explained. He said, tongue in cheek, God doesn’t come to church every Sunday. Some Sundays he stays home in his pajamas and reads the Birmingham News and drinks coffee. I don’t know if he watches Joel Osteen or not. But Marney went on to say—even though God does not come to church every Sunday—we need to be there. Because once in a while, when we least expect him, the big doors back there will open and God will come into the house and walk down the aisle and stop at your pew or mine. And when that happens—we will never ever be the same again. So—we need to be here every Sunday just is case God decides to stop by.

Do you see what I am trying to say? This is prayer, too. This getting up and coming week after week. And it’s more than that sulk I’ve heard in every church I’ve been in: “That sermon did not speak to me at all.” Or “I just hated that anthem.” Or “the flowers just drooped this morning.” Or “the preacher didn’t speak to me.” That’s a far cry from the prayer in action when you come knowing that God may just speak to you when you least expect it. Knocking on the door. Persistent. Isn’t that prayer, too?

But in our culture who wants to keep knocking on the door. We don’t have time for that. So we have instant coffee and instant potatoes (that taste like instant potatoes)—and we have microwave lunches that we cook in ten minutes (and taste like it, too) and we have canned biscuits and One-minute-managers. And we can learn French or Spanish in six easy lessons. And all these things on TV—we can grow hair or eye-lashes in a matter of days. We can lose twenty pounds overnight. And we can even look like Joan Rivers if we have the money. None of this requires persistence. Just a little cash and a few minutes or a few days to say the least. Instant everything.
What can we Do?

And Jesus comes telling this strange story at the end of the Lord’s Prayer about this man who knocked and knocked on his neighbor’s door at midnight. He would not take no for an answer. We’re all in the same boat. It gets downright scary sometimes. We don’t know where the world is going. Why we don’t even know where we are going. The pressures are everywhere. And sometimes we wonder if our little efforts really matter.

Haiti so big and so enormous—what can we do? We wonder about the oil spill and what in the world is going to happen. We can go down there with our buckets but will it make any difference? We think about the Taliban and the suicide bombers and wonder about the future. We look at the drug problem or the rage and anger in the country or all those boys and girls that come home in those flag-draped boxes week after week. There are over 6,000 now that we’ve lost. 39,000 have been wounded to date. And our hearts just sink.

Can our efforts—our knocking on the door make a difference? Mother Theresa was interviewed one day by this newsman. “Let me ask you, Mother—why do you do what you do? You pick up one child and it’s already dead. You pick up another and another and another and try to help. But out there on the streets there are hundreds and hundreds more. Why do you do what you do?” And she looked at him with those piercing eyes and said, “Young man I do what I can where I am with I have.” If that’s not prayer I don’t know what it is. We’re not responsible for the world. That’s God’s business. But we are responsible for our little family and our little half-acre and our church here and those that we touch in the grocery store and we pass on the streets. We are to do what we can where we are with what we have. That’s prayer and that’s persistence. Knocking on the door.

Hang in There!

Let me tell you a pretend story. It is only a story but it could be true, who knows? My wife was out of town the other day and so I got up early the next morning and worked out and when I got through I was hungry, so I stopped at the Waffle House. Surely I thought a few carbs wouldn't hurt. I sat down in the no-smoking section and ordered an omelet with bacon, grits, lots of grits, whole-wheat toast, coffee and orange juice. As I waited for the meal a woman came and sat down next to me. Strange looking woman. Bright red-hair—sorta stringy. Had on a flowery dress, and a hat of all things, covered with flowers. Lots of make-up and long green gloves and red very high heels. “You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” Well, what could I say? And so I said, “No, I don’t mind.” “What’s your name,” she asked. And I said, “Roger.” “My name is Gabriella,” she said. I thought she must be Italian. “What do you do?” she asked. And I didn’t want to tell her because when you say you’re a preacher they act like you either have bad breath or just told them some very bad news. And if not that—they get this wild look in their eyes. So I mumbled, “I’m a preacher.” She didn’t seem to flinch. She said, “I’m a messenger.” “A messenger.” “Yes,” she said, “a messenger and I have been sent to give you a message.” Huh? “Who sent you to bring me a message?” “Her,” she said. “Her?” And she said, “Her, you know God.” And in my most ministerial voice I said, “God is not a her.” And she shrugged and said, “Whatever.” I thought I must be losing my mind. “Well, if you’re a messenger, what is the message you have from, er, her?” Gabriella said, ‘Hang in there.” “What?” I asked. “Hang in there is the message.” And I said, “What kind of a message is that?” Gabriella said, “I don’t know. I’m just a messenger. I guess you have to figure out what it means for yourself.” And without a word she got up and left the table and walked out the door. As she got into her old car, my waitress brought my omelet to the table.1

And all the way home I couldn’t get that message out of my mind. “Hang in there.” Reckon this is what Jesus was talking about the story. Hang in there. You who are barely hanging on by your fingernails. You who have mounting debts. Hang in there you who wonder if you will lose your home or your health or your marriage? Hang in there even a bad lab report or a back that won’t quit hurting. Hang in there in an age when everything seems hard. I really think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told this story. For you and me and all of us: Hang in there. Hang in there. Hang in there. I do believe that may be prayer after all.

(In the Princeton University Chapel my favorite window is featured above. It is the great north window which depicts endurance. Christ is the central figure and is shown in martyrdom. The figures represent martyrs of the Church. In stone beneath the window is carved, "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.")

(This sermon was preached at the Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL on July 26, 2010 and follows the lectionary text for the day.)

1. I am indebted to Ted Loder for giving me this idea years ago. The story is mine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking Our Country Back

"I wish that there were some wonderful place
  In the land of beginning again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
  And all of our poor selfish grief
Can be dropped like a shabby coat at the door
  and never put on again."
      --Louise Fletcher Tarkington

The Tea Partiers keep saying they want to take their country back. They are not the only ones. We would all like to be in a different place. I would love to be in a world where there were no foreclosures, no oil spills, and no subtle (and maybe even more dangerous) racist attitudes. I would certainly like to be in a place where I knew our Aunt, slowly drifting away with dementia, would have enough money to take her to the finish line. And even closer to home—I’d like some assurance that I would have enough, too. I would like to live in a time without an Iraq-Afghanistan war and scary spots around the world. I would like to live in a world without pay-day loans and in a state (Alabama) where we really could change our 1901 constitution—and a state where poor people did not have to pay sales tax on food or clothing. But there is more. Some days I wish my kids were little and we were in that little white house with the green shutters and our mean cat was still alive and Pooch thumped his tail on the kitchen floor. These longings are endless.

Someone has said that all those that are yelling about taking the country back—really have a lot of things is mind. Maybe even more than some of the things I have listed above. But when people say they want to take their country back—I want to know how far back they want to go? To those early days when we put “the wrong people” in stocks and poked sticks at them after divine worship on Sunday? Or maybe even that same time when we ran the Indians off the land they had lived on for generations. Do we really want to go back to the scourge of the Civil war when everything was broken or Reconstruction when all hell broke loose? Or the days before women could vote and black folk had to sit on the back of our buses if they had the change. Who wants to go back to the Depression, to those terrible days when we incarcerated the Japanese—when Joseph McCarthy ran wild and destroyed lives by the hundreds? Or a world of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or even, maybe the good old days when Martin Luther King and the two Kennedy’s were gunned down or later when Ronald Reagan was king.

We can’t go back. The Genie is out of the bottle and we can’t put her back in. In my lectionary reading from Joshua I remembered the background. After 40 years of wandering in a wilderness they finally made it across the Jordan into a new land—the promised land. But taking the land was not easy. In fact it was so difficult that the leader, Joshua prayed to God: “Ah, Lord God! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us?” (Joshua 7. 7) Long before in Egypt they had asked how long while they were in slavery. And on that long, winding march of years and years they muttered it over and over, “Why can’t we go back?”

None of us can go back. We are stuck in the present tense. Maybe every tribe that has ever lived has wistfully looked back and remembered the good old days. We have to live in this world, with limits and complications and the tightening of our belts and find some way to pay our bills not only individually but as a nation. In the fifth chapter of Joshua after cries and muttering, Joshua was told: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” Maybe this is why Joshua finally was able to get back up and save the day.

If this is holy I would like to see un-holy. But this is all we have: the present tense. We are not given tomorrow and we surely can’t go back to yesterday. So we must wake up every morning pull the curtains back—shift gears into another day. It will not be easy—in fact in may be hard indeed. But who knows—maybe, just maybe this strange place may be the holiest place we ever know. And one day looking back we may say, misty-eyed: “My, my remember…”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Main Thing

As I prepared my sermon for Sunday—I kept coming back to the lectionary passages in Amos and Luke. Sometimes the texts seem to have little to do with one another. The old prophet Amos decried the fact that in his time there was a famine in the land. Not of food, particularly, he said but a famine of the word of God. People were hungry and many that looked to the religious institutions of their day went away empty.

With all the intramural fighting about the role of women, the place for gays in the church and the gap between the fundamentalists, the conservatives, the moderates and the liberals—not to speak of the scandals--much of the world looks at us as if we are simply irrelevant. No wonder so many thinking people have given up on the church—there is still a famine in the land and  the world looks at us like we are handing out stones instead of bread.

Of course we have not been short on answers. If you want to find out about church you might just look in the yellow pages of your phone book under Church. Chances are you would be confused. I found 14 yellow pages of lists and ads from churches.

I looked under Christian Church and I found Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Christian Missionary and Alliance. There are nine kinds of Baptists. Not only are there Roman Catholics but also Catholics that observe the Byzantine rite. You will find regular Episcopalians and Charismatic Episcopalians and the Anglican Church that tells you they use the same Prayer Book that Jesus used. There are six different churches of God and Bahai and one church that says it is Interdenominational. There was an Islamic temple and four kinds of Methodists. There are three different Presbyterian groups not to mention the Spiritualists, Unity, and Metropolitan Community Church. Some preachers wear robes while others are donned in blue jeans and Reeboks. You’ll find beautiful stained glass windows and storefront churches. There are guitars and tambourines and rockin’ and rollin’ and there are places so quiet people would have a stroke if somebody said Amen. We have beautiful church buildings and churches that look like the civic auditorium. The outsider, hungry for some word to keep them going would be frankly confused.

Now turn to the Gospel reading we find that interesting story in Luke’s tenth chapter. And Luke is really trying to help the struggling church understand its real identity. Leave those fourteen pages in the phone book and look at what Luke is trying to tell the church. What really matters? What is the main thing?

Luke gives us a story of two sisters. Jesus came to see them and they were so glad. They were old friends and it was a marvelous meeting. But it also a study in contrasts. Martha went to the door; she wiped her hands on her apron, pushed her hair out of her eyes and told Jesus to come in. She hugged him with a great big Martha hug. Her sister, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and they talked. She listened. Martha set the table, got out the silver, put a dish in the oven, turned down the burner on the stove, and began to peel onions and potatoes. And she called into the other room, “Mary, would you help me. Mary—I could use some help out here.” Five minutes later she comes to the door and says icily, “Mary. Would you please come in here and help me.” It was an awkward moment. Jesus sighed and lovingly said, “Martha, you are distracted with many things. There is only one thing. Your sister, sitting her has chosen the better part.” Martha’s jaw fell about four feet.

What is this main thing that Jesus talked about? It’s not the pot roast. It’s not a bulletin—without a single typo. Neither is it a proper Doxology or Lord’s Prayer led by someone who doesn’t forget half-way through the prayer. The main thing is not some politically correct or incorrect pronouncement.

In the story--Mary broke the rules. Women were supposed to stay in the background and submit. The men would sit at table with the guests. Not only was Mary not setting the table but she was not pushy—the in-your-face type. She sat and listened. But Jesus said: “Mary understands the main thing.” But it’s not that simple, is it? I wish it was. Just gather and pray and sing and forget the world. Is this the main thing? Martha did not think so. I don’t know how many women in the church through the years have come by the church door on the way home and said: “I just can’t stand that story. Mary—the chosen one? Huh—if it wasn’t for Martha you couldn’t get anything done around here. Somebody has to work.”

Luke didn’t think it was that simple either. In the story that precedes Jesus' visit with the two sisters he tells the story of Good Samaritan. Who was it that got the point—understood what he was to do? A Samaritan stopped and bound up the wounds of a hurting man when no one else seemed to care. Jesus said what really matters is that we show mercy.

Luke gives us a clue as to what we really are to do about the famine in the land. Luke or some scribe placed the Samaritan story and the story of the two sisters back to back for one purpose. The Gospel demand is to do like Martha the Good Samaritan. And the gospel demand is to do what her sister, Mary did. Sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet and listening. So our task is two fold: doing and listening.

Some of us doers here have so little patience with the Mary’s. And some of us meditative types have too little patience with the Martha’s. And Luke says: we need both.

Mary had it right. She sat at Jesus’ feet—quiet and listening. Martha also had it right—she set the table and prepared the meal. Hopefully after listening to Jesus she saw her world in a different light. Mary saw faces she had not seen and needs she never knew existed. Martha—hopefully learned after the meal to sit and be quiet—to let her exhaustion melt away as she remembered the visit of Jesus and the things they talked about—and how good it felt.

People today long for something to move them beyond their distractions. I-Phones, Pods, Pads, computers, email and the constant blaring of late breaking news does not feed the soul. We all need something that will make us more human, kinder and participants in a better world. Mary and Martha are both our models—and they are models for that long, long list of different churches in my phone book.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's a Plumb Line?

(I preached this sermon yesterday, June 11th at Southside Baptist, Birmingham. I share most of it with those that are interested--if  sermons are not your thing pass by on the other side.)


If I were to give you a test on the book of Amos—would you pass it? Who was this Amos? Where did he come from? What exactly was he trying to say? Chances are most of us would flunk the test. Amos was not in the Top Ten of the Book of the Prophets. He would have never made it into the finals of American Idol. Simon Cowell would have said, “That’s a pretty depressing man and book.” And he would be right.

Amos plowed new ground. He would be the first of a long line of prophets. The judgment of God is coming, he said, because you have failed to live up to God’s standards. The theme is judgment—and what kind of a semi-moderate church wants to hear that?
Because of Amos—Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah and the early parts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel will take up the same theme. But Amos was the first.

The country was rich. It was a time of great power for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. And Amos came pointing his shotgun: they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…they trample the head of the poor, and push the afflicted out of the way…they lie on beds of ivory…eat lambs and calves from the flock…drink wine for bowls and anoint themselves with the finest of oils. He summed it all up by saying that they trampled on the heads of the poor and had no sensitivity to those in need. No wonder Amos couldn’t even get elected to the School board.

The false prophets said all is well. We’re a good people. We’ve worked hard. Why not enjoy the fruits of our labor? Why should I care about the deadbeats, these bleeding this country dry on welfare and food stamps? And we haven’t even mentioned the illegals. If they want health insurance—get a job. Excuse me, but I have to get my nails done and go to the tanning bed and meet some friends for lunch at the country club. Amos has some kind of a problem. Amaziah whispered to the King that he ought to send Amos to Guantanamo.

But Amos kept preaching. In our text today in Amos 7.7 he says: He showed me a wall. And he took a plumb line. Stretched it out against the wall. It’s not level—this wall. Not level at all. Soon it’s going to sag and fall down.

We know what a plumb line is. It’s a level. You have to use a plumb line and build the thing right or you are in trouble. One Saturday evening we decided to wallpaper the bath-room. And I didn’t get the plumb line out. I could see where the lines ran. I had to get through and get some sleep before Sunday. And about the third long strip of paper the vertical lines began to look horizontal. It was way off. And I had to peel it all off and start over. It was Saturday night at 11:00 by that time and I had to preach the next morning. When we ignore the plumb line—the wallpaper is way, way off. It is out of sync. It just does not look right. Looks terrible.


Let’s leave Amos and look at where we are. All we are hearing about lately is the oil spill. And if we get out the plumb line—it’s sagged all over the place. And it’s like a plague that is affecting everything. And so we point fingers. PB, Obama, George Bush, the lack of regulations, dragging our feet when we could have ships from Sweden and Norway sucking this stuff up. Meanwhile back at the ranch the oil just keeps gushing killing everything in sight. Blaming is so easy. We Americans have it down to an art form. Why don’t they do something?

And I agree with the man in Sojourners Magazine that wrote the other day, “I am in no position to ‘throw the first stone.’ My style and standard of living cries for oil wells to be built. This catastrophe raises the question of whether I am glorifying and relating obediently and worshipfully with the One who created everything I see, hear, touch, and smell .Have a stuck my head so far into the sand that I cannot budge from my self-serving practices?” Do you see the connection with Amos—we are talking about the plumb line?

Who wants to turn down the air and up the heat? Especially today. This is Alabama, for goodness’ sakes. We don’t pare down our gasoline use. Most of us would not think of driving one of those expensive hybrid cars. Why they look so weird and who knows if they have the bugs out of them. And when I board a plane as I did weeks ago for Philadelphia—I didn’t think much about how much gasoline I was helping to consume. We could talk about hummers and helicopters and tanks in Afghanistan—which I understand gobble up more of our gas than any other single group. As a nation we have got to get this Drill, Baby, Drill kick because this addiction to oil is finally going to do to us what crack does to the human body. Just takes longer. What does this have to do with Amos? Everything. We are being measured by God’s plumb line we something is way, way out of whack.

But Amos didn’t just address the nation—the Northern Kingdom. He gets personal—he started talking about them and their own situations. We have to take out God’s measuring stick and put it up against our lives. Where’s the sacrifice? In World War II we rationed sugar and gasoline and a whole lot of other things. We had victory gardens. We saved up old scrap metal tin cans and even silver chewing gum wrappers. We had no volunteer army—everybody had to go. There’s a new book out by Sebastian Junger called War. As he was leaving the troops he had been living with them for a year, one soldier said, “Let me ask you something, Do people know we are even out here?”


Not where’s the beef. But where’s the sacrifice? What do we do to help somebody else? That’s the plumb-line question. Jesus dealt with sacrifice—that costs us something—when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. A lawyer came to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to love God and love his neighbor. And so lawyer pressed him, And who is my neighbor?

And then Jesus took out his plumb line and told a story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho where he was attacked and robbed and left in a ditch for dead. A Priest came by and did not stop. And then a Levite—sort of a deacon—charter member of the church—came by—but did not stop. “Help me, help me” the man moaned. And then Jesus said a Samaritan, a half-breed—what we might call an illegal immigrant—came by and stopped and bound up his wounds and saved the man’s life. And Jesus, holding up the plumb line said, “Who is my neighbor.” And the lawyer said through clenched teeth: “The man that showed mercy.”

We can’t get away from the plumb line. If we love God we will love our neighbors which takes in just about everybody. It starts at home. Which may be the hardest place to love. And then we branch out and take mercy with us wherever we go.

Let me tell you a story. Several times the daughter called her mother and said, "Mother, you must come see the daffodils before they are gone.” It was a two-hour drive and lots of traffic. The Mother sighed, “I guess I’ll come next Tuesday…” she said after the third call.

Tuesday was cold and rainy and she didn’t want to go. But she had promised her daughter and the grandchildren were excited. Finally she got there, put her bags down and said, “Forget the daffodils. The road is so foggy and I am exhausted.” “Mother”, the girl said, “we drive in this all the time.” “Well,” the woman said, “You won’t catch me on the road until it clears.” And the daughter said, “I was hoping you’d take me over to the garage to pick up my car.”

The daughter drove and the mother looked up and said, “This is not the way to the garage.” The daughter said, “We’re going to long way and we’ll see the daffodils.” The daughter’s name was Carolyn. “Carolyn, this is ridiculous turn the car around.” And Carolyn would not give up. “Mother, it’s all right. If you miss what I’m going to show you you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Twenty minutes later they turned on this small gravel road and there was a little church. On the far side of the church there was a hand-lettered sign that said: “Daffodil Garden.” They got out of the car, and the Mother held both grandchildren by the hand and they followed Carolyn down the path. When they turned the corner the Mother just gasped. Before them lay a most glorious sight. Daffodils, daffodils everywhere. All kinds. Yellow, of course, but deep orange and white and lemon yellow and salmon pink—all colors. Each variety planted as a cluster and they moved in the breeze. There were five acres of daffodils.

The mother asked Carolyn, “Who did all this?” “Just one woman. She lives on the property. That’s her home over there.” They walked up to the little house and they saw a hand-letter poster: “Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Going to Ask.” The first answer was: “50,000 bulbs.” The second answer read: “One at a time by woman. Two hands, two feet and very little brain. The third answer said: “Began in 1958.” They stood there trying to hold back the tears.

The old woman fifty years before had begun with one bulb at a time. Year after year she planted and changed the world around her. She had created something that was beautiful and indescribable. One step at a time, year after year—she changed her world. The mother said, “Fifty years of work and all this beauty. Makes me sad to think how little I have done for the world.” And the daughter said, “We can always start tomorrow.” One bulb at a time.

Reckon Amos would have liked this story and Jesus too? I think they would take out their plumb line and say it was just right. The world is a better place when you and I follow the plumb line.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Iraq and Afghanistan--A Soldier's Question: "Do people know we are out here?"

"Let me ask you something, Do people know we are out here?"
--a soldier's question to Sebastian Junger as he headed home
 from Iraq after spending a year with the troops.

He sat in the seat next to us in the airport in Philadelphia. He had on his army fatigues and was looking at his computer. Great big guy. On the seat beside him was a small Bible. When he folded his computer he started talking to us. He was on his way home to Alabama after being deployed to Iraq three times. “I’m having some tests run tomorrow at the hospital and prep me for surgery.” he said. “That’s why I am going home. The day after tomorrow they will operate on me for cancer—and after about three weeks recovery I’ll be on my way back to Iraq.”

He shook his head about General McChrystal—said he should have lost his command. “You don’t talk about the Commander in Chief—he’s the boss.” He said, “I’m surprised that he will retire as a four star general—doesn‘t seem right.”

He told us, “You think it’s hot here—it was 127 degrees when I left Iraq. The scorpions are as big as your hand. Some of the guys actually play with them. Crazy, I know.” He expressed his frustration of being in Iraq. “If they are gonna send us somewhere they ought to ship us over to Afghanistan—that’s where we are needed. In my company—we don’t do anything but sit around. We’re supposed to be training Iraqi soldiers to take over but some days they don’t even show up at all. I wonder sometimes why we are over there anyway—protecting their country when they are doing little.”

He was trying to squeeze himself into two seats on the way home. Looking back, he had the little overhead light on and he was reading his Bible. Maybe he was looking for something to hang on to in his hard days to come.

As we left the plane we stood around getting our suitcases. He picked up this enormous military bag, shook our hands and was on his way. Waiting for our ride I saw him with a grey-haired lady that must have been his mother. Today he must be recuperating in a hospital nearby. I hope his report is good and that he is all right.

I pray for him and all the young and not-so-young men and women that serve in a hard and dangerous place. The Pentagon says we have 94,000 US forces in Afghanistan and 92,000 troops in Iraq. CNN reports that there have been 1,899 deaths in Afghanistan and 6,773 wounded. We have had 4,733 death in Iraq and 31,882 wounded. This does not count all the others who have died or been wounded from 20 other countries.

When you sit down and talk to one of these men and women you don’t see figures and statistics—you see human beings just wanting to be well, to make it, to be safe—and to find life meaningful.

In another very troubled time, the prophet Micah dreamed a dream: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…” Amen.

Friday, July 9, 2010

As Good a Samaritan as I Know

Desperate for a Good Samaritan illustration for Sunday’s Gospel text? You might want to remind your folk about the movie, The Blind Side. Many of them will have seen it. Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award this year for her stunning role in the film. The story behind the movie is about the Tuohy family in affluent-Germantown, Tennessee—a well-heeled Memphis suburb. One cold night as they drove along in their Mercedes Leigh Ann Tuohy said to her husband Sean, “Turn around.” She told him there was a big black man walking down the street with only a t-shirt and short pants. That turning around changed their lives.

They invited Michael Oher home with them. He was one of thirteen children. His mother was drug addicted and he was almost homeless. So the Touchy unofficially adopted Michael. Progress was slow. Change for all of them did not come easily. But they hung in there—made sure Michael played football and finished High School. While in school Michael not only played football but became a College All-American. The scouts were so impressed with Michael they offered him a scholarship to Ole Miss. After college he was a first round NFL draft choice. Today he plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

The Tuohy’s have just written a book about this experience: In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving. Interviewed on Good Morning America this week Leigh Ann, said, “One thing we want people to get from our story: the person you just walked past is the one who could change your life—so, every once in a while, stop and turn around.” The strange thing is that the Tuohy family talks about how Michael changed their lives—not how they helped change his—which they certainly did. Is there a better Good Samaritan story for us to think about in this “it’s all about me” age.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4th Meditation--Happy Birthday, Baby

This July 4th I am in Philadelphia--the great tributary which is the source of this great river that we have become. I have a lot of trouble with the folk (like the Tea-Partiers, etc) who are saying that we have to return to the original intention of the constitution. These are some of the same folk that are saying the Supreme Court justices must return to the original intent of the Constitution. Well, ask Justice Roberts, et al what that means today. 

In Alabama in the last gubernatorial race--one Republican candidate accused the other of not believing the Bible. The man had said that of course certain passages of the Scriptures could not be taken literally. After he was charged with the heresy of such a statement--the candidate recanted and said he believed every word of the Bible was literally true. It is comforting to know that we now have two Republican candidates running against each other that believe in stoning adulterers and homosexuals--that the world really is flat--and that axe heads can float and surely the sun can stand still. (I won't mention the Democratic candidates that don't have a prayer in Alabama.)

Don't these folk know that you have to view these documents in the time in which they were written? As for the Constitution--they never heard (tell, if you are from Alabama) of oil spills, drones, September 11th--this unending war--not to speak of equal rights for (whatt???) gays and illegal immigrants.

We are not the same country we were...even fifty years ago and I can remember those "good old days" when the livin' was (supposedly) easy and black folk (we had never heard (tell--remember I am from Alabama) of Hispanics, etc.Not to speak of that wondrous time when the men were strong and the women were good lookin' and (most of) the children were above average.--

I don't know what we are going to do about the economy--but crucifying the Prezzident and all the Democrats I don't think will solve much. (Remember the last administration?) On this July 4th--I know it is a scary time...but it was probably scary when those first Pilgrims got here and looked around and wondered if somebody had sold them a bill of goods in England.  Or when we went to war against ourselves in the Civil War and it looked like the end of it all. We have survived crisis after crisis. I'm not being a Pollyanna, I don't think (maybe I am)--but every battle is not Armageddon. We're in a tough time--9.5% of us do not have today I read in the Sunday NY Times a two and a half page story about one of our soldiers who just a year ago got both is legs and arms blown off--and to his number we can add a great many others--read it and weep. On and on we could go about our troubles--but this soldier, it seems to me is what this country is still all about. Despite every restriction we can imagine that could possibly happen to him--he is awaiting a time when he will get two arm transplants. It will take more than a year of hoping his body doesn't reject these when they do come available. He lives with hope.

And it seems to me so must we all.  Outside my son's door and across the street live two lesbians and their two kids...two doors away a black family is sitting on a concrete stoop in front of their house while the man of the family barbecues a whole rack of ribs in the closed-off street. They don't seem to have a lot of money but they are laughing and having a ball. There will be fireworks on the river tonight...and people from every country you can imagine will sit on the grass and say: Ahhh. I really do think  Ben Franklin--a real maverick if there ever was--would be very proud.  I don't usually get squishy over the American flag--but when I see them flapping in the breeze all up and down these mean streets--I get a lump in my throat--and despite all the pain and misery and scary stuff out there--I think I still have some hope for us all.

Happy Birthday--baby--I wish you well even thought you (we) have a long way to go. 

(You might enjoy Ross Douthat's column in Monday's NY Times. It is always fun when you find somebody who agrees with you.)