Friday, June 25, 2010

He was a Friend of Mine

"He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord  just can't keep from crying
'Cause he was a friend of mine. "
        --Bob Dylan

Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher said that the proper use of a temple is where people come to weep together. We make proper use of this temple today because we come to grieve as a family.

But it’s funny in a time of death and tears and loss—we don’t think about death as much as we think about life—and not just life in general but this specific life—Don Yates’ life. The pictures back there in the foyer are pictures of some of the scenes of his life. And what a life it has been.

Alabama boy...Coffee High School...Liberty National...Coast Guard...University of Michigan...marriage to friends...Debbie...Jason...churchman...friends...the beach...Austria...Germany... Switzerland...Paris...Africa...Mexico...friends...Disney  world...weddings...Alexander...Nicolai...Emerson...

I must say that Don would be mortified that people were making such a to-do over him. He didn’t like the spotlight—he was more a behind-the-scenes person. But even though he would be embarrassed by all the things we say—I think he would be very proud that we have all come to surround Ann and Jason and Debbie—and maybe most of all these grandchildren: Alexander, Nikki, Emerson and Cortland. He loved them as much as any Grandpa could. We talked about many things in our last visits before he slipped into a coma. But he said the hardest thing about leaving was not being able to watch his grandchildren grow up.

Our paths first crossed when Don and Ann moved back from Oklahoma and joined Covenant again in 1996. They had been charter members of the church—and when a group walked out of First Baptist over the racial issue—they were part of that first group that formed this church. I always felt like Don had a strong sense of justice—and maybe that was part of the reason Don and Ann walked out and help start this church.

But they came back to us when they moved from Oklahoma in 1996 and early on—we became friends. We celebrated birthdays especially. Theirs and ours. And Don would say: “Let’s go to The Club and celebrate your birthday.” He always drove—he loved cars and he loved to drive. But I always wondered if maybe one of the reasons he insisted on driving because he was scared to ride with me. When he turned 65 he bought a convertible that he just loved. We were part of that glorious wedding week-end at Orange Beach when Katie and Jason got married on a yacht. We spent time with them at the Beach. We shared in their joy of the birth of their grandchildren and heard a lot of bragging about Alexander and Nikki. and Emerson and Courtland. Gayle and I took a group to the Passion Play in Germany and  Don and Ann were part of that fun group. When we got ready to retire from the church—Dan and Ann were part of the planning of the celebration the church gave us. And the last Sunday I was here as Pastor I asked Don and Ann to read the Scripture lessons. Weeks later I called them one day and said, “We’re going to Paris to celebrate our retirement—want to go?” And I heard Don turned to Ann and say: “Would you like to go to Paris?” Well—we went and have a heart full of good memories of that trip. Don, being the genius he was in navigation—figured out the Metro subway system—even figured out the French money—and kept us on track. But it was a week to remember.
I have pictures galore of our times together. But that night at Judy Bridgers when we celebrated Ann’s birthday and Don held tiny baby Emerson , Jason and Katie’s baby. And Don is just beaming in that picture. It was a wonderful occasion.

Somebody taught him manners along the way—his Mama, the Coast Guard—Ann somebody. He was always sensitive to others. I don’t know how many times I just mentioned something in passing and in a day or two from U.S. Today would come these little cut-out articles and a clipped note—I thought you might to read this.

When I first heard the news that he had bone cancer—I couldn’t believe it. This strong, strapping good man—tall and vital—how could he possibly have cancer? Even today I find it hard to believe.

And I thought about that scene early in John’s gospel when old Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish leader, came to Jesus at night. He whispered, “Can a man be born again when he is old?” He was wanting Jesus, if he had the power, to turn back the clock, change his hair and beard from grey to dark brown--to make him young again. To let the years fall away—to give him more time. Someone said the greatest grief of them all is that we all run out of time. We can’t call back the years. And none of us in this room will be able to stop the ticking of the clock. Our hour glass like Don’s will run out—and so here, in this room where people come to weep in common—we weep for dear Don because it didn’t last long enough. And here, with our fellow-grievers we touch lightly the hard fact that we will all run out of time and that is a very great grief.

And so, we thank God for the memories of Don Yates. A good man, a good, good man. A friend and husband and son and brother and father and grandfather and an Actuary—whatever that is. He not only fought a good fight…he lived a good fight…and now he is in the care and keeping  of the Father.

Some time ago I ran across this quote that I hang on to often: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge—Someone is hidden in this dark with me.” It is a word for Don and Ann and Jason and Katie and these grandchildren and all of us. Someone is hidden in this dark with all of us. And on  very hard day--that is good news. Thanks be to God.

A Prayer for Don

"Into paradise may the angels lead him, may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light."
                                  --from The Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead

(Don Yates died Tuesday, 22, 2010 after a battle with bone cancer. These remarks were made at his funeral in Birmingham, AL. on June 25, 2010.  The pictures above show Don in happy days;  2) Don and his beloved wife, Ann at her birthday party; 3) This is Don's son Jason holding his first born, Emerson; 4) This is daughter Debbie and grandson, Alexander; 5) Here are both grandsons: Alexander and Nikolai with their father Nick.)

From Lamentation to Light

In Seminary I remember my homiletics professor saying that there are only two ways to preach a really good sermon. Either we begin where we are and end in Jerusalem or we begin in Jerusalem and end our homily on the street where we live.


Today’s Psalm begins close to home. Most scholars think these words came out of the depths of the exile. Far from home God’s chosen found themselves in that hard place where they discovered it well-nigh impossible to sing the Lord’s song. This exile was a place called hopelessness—a region of enormous pain.

We’ve all been there. We struggle with unanswered prayer. We identify with the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen.” The old land marks seem to have slipped away. We worry about the shifting morals of our young, the old institutions of safety like banks and stocks. We lose sleep over terrorism, Alzheimer’s health care. We wonder if we will have enough to take us to the finish line. Looking around we find so little comfort we wonder if anyone has heard our moaning. Things are sometimes so hard that our prayers stick in our throats. The Psalmist laments could be our own: “Has his steadfast love ceased forever?” and “Are his promises at an end?” (vs. 8) This is the street where most of us live.

Sometimes I read the lectionary texts and wonder what possible connection our selected readings have to do with one another. Not so in today’s texts. Elijah could identify with Psalm 77. This faithful prophet found himself running for his life. Having offended the petulant Queen Jezebel—she had determined to kill him. And so Elijah hid in the wilderness and railed out words that could have been written by our Psalmist. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”

This same sentiment can be found as we move to our Epistle reading. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians the personal pull of slavery was very real. The old gratification of self-destruction was ever-present: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, the list was seemingly endless. In his own life the Apostle had railed out much like the Psalmist: “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.24) “I do not understand my own actions,” he said, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Doesn’t it all sound familiar? The Psalmist in Exile, Elijah afraid and desperate, Paul agonizing over the strictures of his own humanity. These are descriptions of the street where we live.

Our focus is on Psalms 77, a Psalm of Lament. There are more Psalms of Lamentation than any other Psalms. Walter Brueggemann writes that life is often savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence and hard lived asymmetry. Strange, he says that the church today opts usually for up-beat songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.


But we cannot stay on the street called lament. In the middle of the darkness of all these readings there shines a beam of light. From verses 11-20 the Psalmist moves from a time of stress much like our world to the strange hopeful world of the Bible. We find ourselves in Jerusalem of all places. Brueggemann says these latter verses give us a Psalm of Orientation.

Elijah discovered in the desert a highway to his God. All the valleys were not exalted and all the hills were not made low but God spoke in his darkest hour. He was fed by the hands of angels and a still small voice sent him back into the fight.

Out of his own life Paul discovered a word for the troubled Galatians. Slavery was not the last word, neither was idolatry, enmity or strife. But all these words gave way to the fruits of the spirit: love and joy and peace and patience.

So Psalm 70. 11 onward moves from the harsh, hard days of the exile to a vision of a far better world. In remembering the God who had acted in their history, they discovered this same God would act on the mean streets where they lived. What we have here is a change of perspective. One scholar says that in all these readings we see the movement from I to Thou. The hymn captured it well: “Thou in the darkness drear our one true light.” Even in the hard circumstances of their lives, the world became larger and filled with hope and mystery.

Ann Weems in her book, Psalms of Lament tells that in 1982 all the stars fell out of her sky when her son Todd was killed less than an hour after his twenty-first birthday. Nothing seemed to assuage her grief. Her friend, Walter Brueggemann, suggested that perhaps if she wrote out the laments of her heart she might find some comfort. And out of the pain of her own life she lifted up her anger and lamentations as she wrote page after page. This grieving mother discovered slowly that God really can wipe the tears from the eyes when no consolation seems to come. She ended her book of laments with the discovery she made in the depths of her darkness. God really does put the stars back in our skies.

The street where we live may just be a place that is hard and difficult. The testimony of the faithful remind us that this is not the last word. Beyond the pain of our lives there is a Jerusalem where we find hope and joy once more.

(The above article was written for The Christian Century and published June 15, 2010. It was written for the June 27th lectionary passage for the church. The text was Psalm 77.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Remember the Fallen

"The greatest treasure the United States has is our enlisted men and women. When we put them in harm's way, it had better count from something. Their loss is a national tragedy."
 --General Tony Zinni USMC (Ret.)
    Commander in Chief
    CENTCOM 1997-2000

Sebastian Junger spent a year with the troops in Afghanistan. As he was leaving one of the young soldiers turned to him and said,"Let me ask you something, Do people know that we are out here?"

Since my last reporting on May 13--I am sad to say that we have lost 47 young men and women. This is the greatest number since I began this remembering a year ago.

Read these names and remember...

Sgt. Denis Deleon Kisseloff / age 45 / Saint Charles, MO./ Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit in Logar province, Afghanistan/ May 14, 2010.

Cpl. Nicholas Dimas Parada Rodriguez /age 29 / Stafford, VA / Died of wounds sustained on May 14 when a roadside bomb detonated while supposrting combat operations in Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 16, 2010.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Zarian Andre Wood / age 29 / Houston, TX / Died of wonds sustained from a roadside bomb blast while on a dismounted patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 16, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Adam Levi Perkins / age 27 / Antelope, CAL / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 17, 2010.

Pfc . Billy Gene Anderson / age 20 / Alexandria, TN / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with roadside bombs in Badghis province, Afghanistan / May 17, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Philip P. Clark / age 19 / Gainesville, FL / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May  18, 20010.

Sgt. Joshua Abram Tomlinson / age 24 / Dubberly, LA / One of five US soldiers killed along with a Canadian soldier when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Col. John Michael McHugh / age 46 / New Jersey / The second of five soldiers killed along with a Canadian soldier when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Lt. Col. Paul Robet Bartz / age 43 / Waterloo, WIS / The third of five soldiers killed along with a Canadian soldier when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Lt. Col. Thomas Patrick Belkofer / age 44 / Pettysburg, OH / The fourth of five soldiers killed when that suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Patrick Xavier, Jr., / age 24 / Pembroke Pines, FLA/ Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Richard James Tieman / age 28 / Waynesboro, PA / The fifth soldier killed along with that Canadian soldier when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosive device in Kabul, Afghanistan / May 18, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Shane Stanley Barnard / age 38 / Desmet, SD / Died of wounds sustained when he stepped on a secondary roadside bomb in Kabul province, Afganistan / May 19, 2010.

Spc. Stanley J. Sokolowski / age 26 / Ocean, NJ / Died in a non-combat related incident in Kirkuk, Iraq / May 20, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Amilcar H. Gonzalez / age 26 / Miami, FLA /Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with small arms fire near Mosul, Iraq / May 21, 2010.

PFc. Jason D. Fingar / age 24 / Columbia, MO / Died of wounds sustained when his military vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Durai, Helmand Province, Afghanistan/ May 22, 2010.

Maj. Ronald W. Culver, Jr. / age 44 /Shereveport, LA / Died when insurgents attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Numaniya, Iraq / May 24, 2010.

Pfc. Christopher Barton / age 22 / Concord, NC / Died of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms fire in Khost province, Afghanistan / May 22, 2010.

Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht / age 24 / College Station, TX / Died following a roadside bomb attack in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 27, 2010.

Pfc. Jake W. Suter / age 18 / Los Angeles, CAL / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 29, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Anthony A. Dilisio / age 20 / Macomb, MICH / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / May 30, 2010.

Sgt. Edwin Rivera / age 28 / Waterford, CONN / Died of wounds sustained on May 20, 2010, Langhman province, Afghanistan / May 24, 2010.

Pfc. Alvaro R. Regalado Sessarego / age 37 / Virginia Beach, VA / Died from wounds sustained April 18, 2010 from a non-combat related incident in Dahuk, Iraq / May 30, 2010.

Sgt. Jonathan K. Peney / age 22 / Marietta, GA / Peney, a combat medic was killed while moving under heavey enemy fire to provide aid to a wounded Ranger in Kandahar province/ Afghanistan / June 1, 2010.

Pvt. Francisco J. Guardado-Ramirez / age 21 / Sunland, NM / Died of injuries sustained from  non-combat related incident in Baghdad, Iraq / Jun 2, 2010.

Sgt. Steve M.  Theobald / age 53 / Goose Creek, SC / Died of injuries sustained in a military vehicle rollover near Kuwait City, Kuwait / June 4, 2010.

1st Lt. Joseph J. Theinert / age 24 / Sag Harbor, NY / Died of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan / June 4, 2010.

2nd Lt. Michael E. McGahan / age 23 / Orlando, FL / Died of wounds sustaned when enemy forces attacked his unit in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 6, 2010.

Sgt. Brandon C. Bury / age 26 / Kingwood, TX / One of three Marines killed in a non-hostile vehicle accident in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 6, 2010.

Cpl. Donald M . Marler / age 22 / St. Louis, MO. / The second of three Marines killed in a non-hostile accident in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 6, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Derek Hernandez / age 20 / Edinburg, TX / The third Marine killed in that non-hostile accident in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 6, 2010.

Sgt. John K. Rankel / age 23 / Speedway, IN / Died as a result of small-arms fire in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 7, 2010.

Spc. Brandon P. Neenan / age 21 / Enterprise, AL / Died of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with a roadside bomb in Jelawar, Afghanistan / June 7, 2010.

Sgt. Derek L. Shanfield / age 22 / Hastings, PA / One of two Marines killed when a roadside bomb detonated during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 8, 2010.

Sgt. Eric J. Klusacek / age 22 / Calcium, NY / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Patkia province, Afghanistan / June 8, 2010.

Sgt. Zachary J.  Walters / age 24 / Palm Coast, FL / One of two Marines killed when a roadside bomb detonated during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 8, 2010.

1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz / age 25 / Grass Lake MICH / One of four airmen killed when their rescue helicopter was shot down near Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 9, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Michael G. Plank / age 25 / Cameron Mills, NY/ Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 9, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Michael Pl. Flores / age 31 / San Antonio. TX / One of four airmen killed in that rescue helicopter was shot down in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 9, 2010.

Staff Sgt. David C. Smith / age 26 / Eight Mile, AL / One of those four airmen killed when their helicopter was shot down in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 9, 2010.

Senior Airman Benjamin D. White / age 24 / Erwin, TN / The last of four airmen killed when their rescue helicopter was shot down in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 9, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Gavin R. Brummund / age 22 / Arnold, CAL / Died when a roadside bomb detonated during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / June 10, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Bryan A. Hoover / age 29 / West Elizabeth, PA / One of two soldiers killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in Zabul province, Afghanistan / June 11, 2010.

Sgt. Israel P. O'Bryan / age 24 / Newbern, TN / One of two soldiers killed when insurgents attacked their unit with a suicide car bomb in Jalula, Iraq / June 11, 2010.

Sgt. William C. Yauch / age 23 / Batesville, ARK / One of two soldiers killed when insurgents attacked their unit with a suicide bomb in Jalula, Iraq / June 11, 2010.

Sgt. 1st Class Robert J. Fike / age 38 / Conneautville, PA / One of two soldiers killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device in Zabul province, Afghanistan / June 11, 2010.

Spc. Christian M. Adams / age 26 / Sierra Vista, ARZ / died of wounds sustained from a non-combat incident in Kandahar, Afghanistan / June 11, 2010.

(The aove sculpture is entitled, "Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus." It is a Roman piece from the Flavian era and is housed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy.)

(The second photograph I took of one of the houses in my neighborhood.)

(The third photograph I took at Coventry Cathedral where an altar with the words, "Father Forgive" was erected at the site of the bombd-out Cathedral in World War II.)

(The last picture I took in the War Museum in London where children had drawn pictures of their feelings about the Gulf war.)

Father's Day--Reach Up and Let the Sun Stand Still

Today is Father’s Day and I am reminded of a story one preacher told about a page in his own family’s life. His five year old daughter stood waiting for him to get home from work. She was so excited. When he got there he told her he had to go out that evening. Her face began to sag. He explained that he had to speak at the church on "What a Good Father Ought to Be." Even as he told her where he would be the irony of it all hit him. So he asked her to help him write his speech for the evening. As they had dinner he told her they would play a game. She would think of something he ought to say about Good Fathers and when she thought of something she would come over to his chair and whisper that suggestion in his ear. He would write them down. Dinner proceeded. The little girl got up out of her seat several times and whispered in her father's ear. Her mood lifted and by the time he had to leave she was fine.

He looked at the list of the things that she had whispered in his ear. What does a good father do? She had told her Daddy:
                                1) He catches a fish. 
                                2)  He builds a fire.
                                3) He flies a kite.
                                4) He catches a butterfly.
                                5) He plants a flower.
                                6) He gets a kitty-cat out of the mud
                                    and washes it off.

As the Preacher-father read his daughter's list it occurred to him that nothing on that list required money. Everything she had suggested required his being there.

The kids don't care what your job is or where you live. They couldn't care less about the kind of car you drive or the times your name is in the newspaper. They will remember, as long as they live, the special moments. The old book says that one day old Joshua reached up and stopped the sun. Time stood still. This is the father's task as well. Stop long enough to let them know you care deeply about them and let them know they are more important than any ticking clock. Let us celebrate this special day. Let us remember fatherhood. Let us remember more than anything the word, father, means being present and accounted for.

(The drawing above was one of many that Rembrandt did retelling the story of The Return of the Prodigal.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Big is Your Church?


One of the first crises in the church was: Shall we admit Gentiles into our fellowship? Could Gentiles be believers? Resolution did not come easy. Finally the Jews swallowed their pride and begrudgingly allowed the Gentile outsiders to come into the fold. Their restrictions seemed fair enough. All these new converts had to do was to be circumcised and follow the laws of Judaism. But the issue was not quite as settled as they thought.

Paul addressed their action when he wrote a letter to the Galatians. He told his people that their welcoming did not go far enough. The Gentiles did not have to subscribe to all the Jewish regulations. All these Gentiles had to do was to be baptized and proclaim Jesus is Lord. It was a new day. Faith had come and even these non-Jews were children of God with no strings attached.

Sometimes Paul got carried away. He pressed his point by telling his Jewish colleagues that all the old categories they had followed all their lives were not enough. What about ethnic or religious divisions, they asked? And Paul said no. Surely, they said, socio-economic forces must be taken into consideration. Stubborn Paul still shook his head. The Jews persisted. Don’t tell us that gender differentiations don’t matter. And for a third time Paul said no. And what followed was absolutely subversive. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ.” They noted his emphasis on the all. No wonder the Jews were outraged. Paul said their all was not big enough?

When Halford Luccock read this Galatian passage he observed that the hardest words to learn in any language were never the long words but the short words. The Galatians had no trouble pronouncing the long, ponderous words: Law, Circumcision, Disciplinarian, or Barbarians. But the Galatians stumbled and stuttered over the little words: Faith, Grace, Baptism, and especially all.


I can understand the Jews’ frustration. When I started preaching over 40 years ago, except for empty pews, a large heating bill and an irate member or two, my little rural church was fairly calm. I spent most of my time on the big words like God’s love and the amazing power of grace. But one day I drove down the highway, turned off on to a dirt road to a tumble-down house where I smelled and saw poverty first-hand. And while I was trying to fill the pews with respectable people, some of those poor tenant farmers and their noisy children came in on a Sunday morning and sat on the second row. And I found myself turning from the seemingly important words to a little word: all.

Finally the church settled down—we thought. And into our little comfortable church there came back from college three of our kids except they now had long straggly hair—one or two even wore sandals. And they stood up and asked: What are you going to do about the Vietnam War and the draft? This all was turning up in some strange ways.

After dealing with poverty and this troublesome war-- I moved on to another place. The honeymoon was scarcely over when someone stood up and asked: Why don’t women serve as Deacons in this church? Hmm. Well, this issue took a lot of time and a multitude of meetings and when it over one sunny Sunday morning we ordained two women. The next day the local association got wind of this heresy and politely withdrew fellowship from our church. I was beginning to learn that sometimes all is a very hard thing for the church to say.

This, of course was not the end. While we were singing and having church a group of fundamentalists were working overtime in our denomination. They took over our literature, our seminaries and even our mission boards. And people began to march down the aisle after church with their big Bibles wanting to know if I believed every word of the Bible was literally true. And I began to realize that this tiny word, all was bigger than I ever thought.

I moved on to another parish and one Sunday out of the blue AIDS walked into my new church and sat on the second row. This was followed weeks later by several gay men and women that asked for membership. Most of us have been there. There were countless meetings and angry members. We lost our biggest givers. Everything got shaky. But finally I was so proud when the church said All loud and clear.

So retirement came and I was relieved that most of my battles were over. And in my first Interim, September 11th happened. The next Sunday a dark-skinned man met me at the back door following the service. He told me he was a Muslim and he wanted to know if my God hated all his people. We’re still unpacking that question in church.

I took a second interim and looked across the pews and realized that the congregation was split right down the middle. It was Presidential election time and we had Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. I remember asking a friend if most of her church were Democrats or Republicans and she smiled and said: “Depends on which side of the altar you’re on.”

The March Goes On

And so the march goes on. Paul’s words to Galatia keep upsetting every generation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or females; for all of you are one in Christ.” And so we Christians might as well tighten our seat-belts. When we least expect it—some Sunday morning our settled worship will once again be interrupted by something. Illegal immigrants. Global warming. Health Care. A war that seems to have no end. Whoever it is—I guarantee you she will sit on the second row and her name will be All.

(The above article was written for The Christian Century and published June 15, 2010. It was written for the June 20th Sunday Lectionary passage for the church. The text was Galatians 3.23-29. The photograph comes from the Catholic Church on St. Giles Street, Oxford, England where Gerald Manley Hopkins served as an assistant curate for one year.)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Living Till We Die

"O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
   And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do do you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?
    --Frances Cornford

I was asked to speak at a Senior Adult dinner this week. When they asked me what I would talk on I said, “I think I’ll talk about ‘What I Want to be When I Grow Up.’” As the time grew closer I remembered something I saw on 20/20 years ago. There were several studies made of why some people live longer than others. They discovered that people were healthier when they had four distinct qualities in their lives:
                  1. A sense of belonging
                  2. An ability to deal with losses
                  3. A positive outlook
                  4. A useful belief system

And so I told the group that maybe I was sticking to my stated subject after all. For these are the qualities I would like to have in my life when I grow up.

A sense of belonging.

We’ve all been in that most uncomfortable spot where we felt like an outsider. One of my favorite poets is a man named Alden Nowlan who knew something about the need to belong. He was abandoned by his parents—they just gave him away and you can imagine what that must have done to him. But he turned his pain into poetry. He tells in one of his poems that a friend of his visited a home for people with special needs. The man was part of a band that came to play and the crowd greeted them like rock stars. His friend said that at the end of the program a woman who must have been 25—sat down beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. He was pretty uncomfortable. And then she whispered, “Hold me. Hold me.” What do you do? He put his arms around her and she said, “Hold me tighter.” And reluctantly he did. And Nowlan ends his poem like this:

       “It’s what we all want, in the end,
        to be held, merely to be held,
        to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
        for every touching is a kind of kiss.)    

       Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
       not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
       not to be famous, not to be feared,
       not even to be loved, but simply to be held.”

It’s what we all want—to be connected—not to be left out. But I think it also means that we all have the task of making sure that those we brush shoulders with never feel like outsiders. Maybe just reaching out to others—we will find our own connections.

An ability to deal with our losses.

We all like to say hello—but few of us do not like to say goodbye. But dealing with the painful experience of saying goodbye is a basic part of life.

In September 1953 morning I was going off to college—my mother came home from work and helped me finish packing. I was riding to school with a friend. He drove up in his car and I took my bags to put them in his trunk. My mother stood on the porch—she didn’t come down to the car—she didn’t want me to see her crying. She just waved from a distance. I was her oldest and she was letting me go. She knew what I would not know for a long, long time—saying goodbye is a painful experience. And I understood when my daughter went off to college…when my son went off to school…and the house was empty. I knew the painful wrenching away when I walked my daughter down the aisle…and later when I stood beside an open grave and said goodbye to the woman who had waved from me on the porch.

All of life is learning to let go—to deal with our losses. Every church I ever had was hard to leave. When I left South Carolina after 13 years one of my good friends handed me a note on the last Sunday I was there. It was a quote from something Katherine Mansfield had written: “How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes, they hold you—you leave bits and pieces of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.” Dealing with all our necessary—and unnecessary losses is part of life—hard though it may be.

A positive outlook.

Isn’t it always perspective--how we look out at the world? And there is a whole lot today to make us wonder if the sky really is falling. TV, newspapers—radio commentators—TV preachers—they go on and on and on. And if we keep listening all this negativism it is going to seep into our souls.

In studying World War II I have been intrigued particularly the way the people in England faced those hard days. From September 7, 1940 until May 10, 1941 the Germans bombed London for 76 consecutive days. At the end of that May 43,000 of their citizens had been killed and over a million houses had been destroyed. How does one live in such a terrible setting? Winston Churchill helped save the day when he told his people: “ Never, never, never give up.” And they didn’t. It’s attitude. I’m not talking about denying reality—but I am talking about living hopefully even when everything seems hopeless.

A useful belief system.

I can’t understand this assault from some quarters today on faith. Quasi-intellectuals are pooh-poohing all faiths. Much of what they despise about religion is right on target. Religion does have a dark side—but this is only a partial truth.

We all need something to keep us going. And the older I get so much of what I counted important through the years doesn’t seem to be quite as important after all. When Jesus was asked what were the greatest commandments he said, “Love God—love your neighbor.” It sounds easy until you begin to put it into practice. But many of us have learned that when we have reached out to help somebody else—we have seen the face of God.

Jim Wallis tells that in his inner city of Washington they feed hungry people every day. And as they line up outside, the workers have a prayer. And one morning one of the servers prayed: “Lord, when you come through the line this morning help us to see your face.”

I’m also beginning to understand the importance of gratitude. So much of my life has been frittered away by forgetting the graces of my life. Someone said that we ought to say a grace over everything we do. When we get out of bed in the morning—even though our backs may hurt—thank God. Shuffling into the kitchen and drinking that first cup of coffee—thank God. Eating that little old bowl of bran cereal or oatmeal—we say a thanks. Looking out the window at the trees, the grass, listening to the birds and even looking at the pouring rain—we thank God. My belief system is including being more aware of the wonders around me.
Another plank I’m working on in my belief system is kindness. When William James’ nephew was going off to school, he asked he famous uncle if he had any words of advice. “Just three—William James said, “Be kind…be kind…be kind.” We are living in a mean-spirited world. With all the frustrations and fears people are showing their teeth more and more. Everyone we meet is having a hard time--what better way to move through the world than to practice kindness wherever we go.

Maybe we make our lives too complicated. Perhaps we all need to simplify. Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed, yeast that works silently in dough, a treasure hidden in a field. No wonder faith has so many enemies today. We have covered up the wonders of what God has laid out with a multitude of things that just do not matter. Let us not be like that character in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Emily dies is childbirth but is allowed to return to earth one day and at the end of that day she said, “All that was going on and I didn’t even know.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Drill, Baby Drill??

All of us have been bothered by the BP debacle in the Gulf. It's been, what--six weeks now and still the oil gushes out. It's beginning to touch beach after beach. Fishermen whose families have been fishing these waters for generations are cut off from their livelihoods. Those that own Condos, Hotels, restaurants along the beaches are terrified--and rightly so. And then the heart-breaking pictures of oil-coated birds and turtles, not to speak of all the fish. We have no idea what all of this is doing to our eco-system. What happens when the hurricanes come? We are now told that it may be August before the well is capped or stopped. This may be a moment of truth for us. Maybe technology can't do everything after all. Maybe we must take a long hard look at our dependence on oil--and that is all of us. B P is the culprit--but we, the people have allowed regulations to slip, to refuse to look at our over-dependence on oil--and people who want the gumm-ment to stay out of their lives and now asking: what is the President going to do about this problem? This is not time to make political hay--Republicans or Democrats--it is a time to bond together--we are all affected one way or another by this monumental crisis. One of the best pieces I have read is Jim Wallis' piece, "A Time for Moral Reckoning." And if we are going to pray--we ought to pray for us all.