Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't Miss The Trip - A Sermon on the last Sunday before Lent

"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 you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?"
            --Frances Cornford 

Have you ever missed a trip? At one time or another we all do. But my question today is more far-reaching than that? Will you miss the trip? Max Lucado tells of sitting on a plane waiting to take off. He was in 14D. She was in 14E. She was obviously country with her velour pants suit. He was from the city—with his Brooks Brothers' suit and Johnson and Murphy’s. From her talk you could tell she was pretty cornpone. He was sophisticated, sitting there with his aluminum briefcase and laptop. He said he didn’t know how old she was—but she looked old.

It was obvious she had never been on a plane in all her life. “I don’t do this much,” she grinned, “Do you?” He nodded. She said, “Oh, that must be a lot of fun.” He groaned. It was going to be a long flight. Here he was in the middle of a hectic week; his plane was already late and overbooked. He had stood in a long line already. He had a slight toothache and didn’t get enough sleep. He just wanted to be left alone.

She looked out the window and squealed: “Ooooh—look at that big plane.” He just wished she would shut up. She volunteered that she was going to Dallas to see her boy. She said: “I hope he’s Ok. He had the flu last week. He’s got a new dog. A black Lab. I can’t wait to see it. The dog’s name is Skipper.”

As the plane climbed, she looked out the window. “Oooooh—look at the trees—they look just like peat moss.” People turned around in their seats and stared. The man next to her wanted to crawl under the seat. “What’s that river?” she asked. He nodded his head, “I have no idea.”

The flight attendant came by asking what they’d like to drink. He asked for a coke. She asked a second time about the choices. When her drink came she said she didn’t know that apple juice came in cans—but it was delicious. And when the sandwich came by she said, too loud: “Why there’s even mayonnaise in here.”

This went on the whole flight. She missed absolutely nothing. She opened the airline magazine in the pouch and oozed and ached. She turned the little overhead fan on. She adjusted the seat. She tried the light. She loved the lunch. He thought it tasted like cardboard. He said the man in front of them was discussing a business trip to Japan and dropping names like crazy. The fellow behind them kept ordering two beers at a time. The woman to his right had important-looking papers stacked all around her. And he opened his laptop and tried to work. It occurred to him that the only person on the whole plane enjoying the trip was the woman sitting next to him.

When the plane was on the ground, she turned and said: “Now wasn’t that a fun-un trip?” And as he watched her get her sacks and belongings, waddle down the aisle and leave the plane, it hit him. What was it that she had that he didn’t have? What was it that she knew that he didn’t know? Why had she enjoyed the whole trip from beginning to end while he was miserable?

In Matthew 17 Jesus took three disciples up to the top of a mountain. It was midpoint in Jesus’ journey. The clouds were hanging low over his ministry. The Pharisees and Saducees were making it hard. His disciples bickered continually. And he began to talk to them about suffering and Jerusalem and the cross. He talked about saving your life by losing it. And so Jesus took the leaders of the disciple band, Peter, James and John. He took them up to the top of Mount Hermon which was about 9,100 feet high. And there on the mountaintop something happened. We’re not sure what occurred. But they called it transfiguration, which meant change or metamorphosis. Moses and Elijah appeared. Jesus’ face shone in a way they had never seen it. His garments glistered and it hurt their eyes. And God spoke, saying, as he did at baptism: “This is my beloved son…Do not be afraid.” It turned them inside out. It changed their lives. They were never quite the same ever again. Simon Peter wanted to stay there forever. Let’s building three temples and just stay, he said. But Jesus wouldn’t stay. The vision faded. Moses and Elijah left as quickly as they came. And Jesus and the three disciples made the winding trip back down the mountain.

Jesus called it a vision in verse nine. Scholars would call it a theophany—a visitation from God. And the disciples would tell it over and over again. That day, that special day when God came down and they beheld his glory. But maybe you’re wondering what does the story of the woman and man on the plane and the Transfiguration story has in common? Everything.


 There comes a time when we have to disengage. From time to time we activists need to stop, look and listen. Don’t do anything—just stand there. That’s hard thing for most of us. We think we have got to be doing something.

Have you seen the T-Shirt that says: “Jesus is coming back—Look Busy.” There’s more truth to that than we let on. The man on the plane missed the journey because he was immersed in busy-ness. The woman was able to focus on the moment. The reason Jesus took his disciples with him was so they could be prepared.

But those who give the stress tests tell us that one of the stressors is getting away—a vacation. I think that probably more fights occur in marriage during vacations than any other time. Maybe all that quality time together. I know sometimes we come back more exhausted. You can’t enjoy the journey with pauses.

I remember somewhere Robert Fulghum tells about this woman who was so stressed out he went to see a psychiatrist. After listening to her a long time, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. She didn’t notice it. She just took it to the drug store and handed it to the pharmacist. He read it carefully and handed it back to her. “I can’t fill this—but you can.” She read it: “Spend one hour some Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in a cemetery.” And she said that she got in touch with her life again. Standing there, with the dawn coming up, listening the birds and watching the world come alive even in the cemetery did something special for her.

Open Our Eyes

We are to open our eyes. The woman on the plane saw. The man was blind. He missed the whole thing. On Mount Hermon the disciples told the others: our eyes were opened. Why, we saw things we never saw before. Once, years ago, someone handed me a little book. People are always handing the preacher a book. I groaned. But one day I picked I up and began to read. I was intrigued by the title, A Touch of Wonder. Dear God, I remembering thinking. I need that. I need a touch of wonder. It doesn’t happen to most of us very often. But we all need some transfiguring experiences when we see what we never saw before.

II Peter 1. 16 is one of the lectionary passages for today. It reads: “We have been eyewitnesses to the majesty.” What a wonderful thing to say about Christians and about the church. Of all the things I read in the secular press—I don’t hear this very often. Why, those Christians, they are eyewitnesses to the majesty around them. One translation says: You do well to pay attention. For, you see, when you pay attention, everything changes.

Perspective Changes

One of the things that happens is that our perspective changes. We see the big picture. What is this big picture? Well, the transfiguration text says that after it was all over they saw Jesus only. They remembered God had said this is my beloved. Do not be afraid. Even if he suffered—they would later piece it together. God was in it. Even if it did not work out the way they thought it would—God was in it. They began to see this was a large thing—this Jesus, his calling of disciples, this thing called church.

I went back to Clemson, SC some time ago where I had served for thirteen years. They were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the church and we had a great time. As I started to leave one of the centennial committee members said they were putting together a video of different pastors and their experiences and wondered if he could interview me for just a few minutes. Not wanting to miss my chance to be a video star I agreed. He asked several questions. One of the questions he asked was: What have you learned through the years that you would like to say to the church. I told him that one of the things it had taken me a long time to learn was that we need to look at the long view. So much of our time in our lives and church is spent overreacting to some little something that hardly matters. I told him much of my time as Pastor had been spent on things I could not remember two years later. We have to look at the big picture. You can‘t tell what is going on by some little old crisis. If we really are people of faith we have to believe that God in this thing and we need not fear. That’s one of the things I deeply believe. So I tell churches all the time: It’s going to be all right. This is God’s thing. Quit worrying and fretting.  

God was There

Above everything else, we learn from this story that God was there. God is infinitely concerned about our lives and our futures. At Transfiguration God spoke to Jesus and his disciples. This is my son, that voice said, my beloved son. And so later when they put the story together they could only think in terms like glory…clouds… Moses and Elijah…vision…dream-like. And even though they found it hard to put into words they were touched and their lives were changed. And years later they would remember that special day on the mountain and Matthew and Mark and Luke would write it down.

Several years ago my wife and I spent a wonderful month in Oxford, England. Right down the street from our flat, about five or six blocks was a very old Catholic church. Gerald Manley Hopkins had served as Assistant curate there for one year in the 1870’s. I decided to wander in and just sit down. No one else was there. It was quiet, very quiet. I noticed the Stations of the Cross where Christ moved slowly in segments toward the cross and his death. But at the center of the church hanging suspended over the altar was this huge golden statue of Jesus standing with his arms outstretched. And as I sat there I suddenly knew that those arms held me…and the people I loved…and all those who wandered into the church. I knew, as if for the first time God really did have the whole wide, world in his hands. The little bitty baby, the desperate woman scared of the future, the old man living alone…the teen-ager struggling with his sexuality. I left there with my own transfiguration experience. I was kept. The world, crazy as it was, was kept. And those I passed students, teachers, domestics—all of us were kept in the everlasting arms of that love.

They Couldn't Stay

The story said that they couldn’t stay on the mountain. Reality intrudes. Visions don’t last unfortunately. Somebody said there are just enough mountain peaks to get us through the lonesome valleys. You can’t stay high forever. That’s the myth of drugs and alcohol and any other addiction. There is an unreality about it all.

As quickly as it came the vision faded. Moses and Elijah were gone. Had they ever been there or was it just some sort of apparition. Jesus’ face did not glisten. They heard nothing but the birds sing. And it was time to go back down the mountain. Reality time. At the bottom remember a child convulsed on the ground. The disciples stood there helpless. They didn’t know what to do.

They couldn’t stay. Reality intrudes here, too. We lose a job. We get depressed. We have wreck. Our back hurts. All hell breaks loose. We wish we didn’t have to get out of bed. Anybody who has ever been to New York City and tried to board a subway at rush hour knows how difficult it is. A woman and her little boy were trying to squeeze on the E train and get off at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street found it a zoo. The boy and his mother were on one of two working escalators with zillions of others. Moving along, the little boy about 8 said: “Mom, are we in line?” Mom said, “No, There is no line. This isn’t school. This is life.”

And life is sometimes tough and crowded and difficult. But the test of the vision is what we do when we get back down to the bottom of the mountain. This is life. Called to make this a better place. Called to make this a better church. Called to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We remember the story of the woman on the plane. We remember Jesus and his disciples on the mountain. We remember what he told us. It was a warning really. Life is short. It doesn’t last long enough. Enjoy the journey. For God’s sake, don’t miss the trip.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What Would You Do With One Trillion Dollars?

Hannah Lythe has posed a great question in her article in the Sojourners’ blog. “What Would You Do with One Trillion Dollars?” She points out that the United States has spent $3 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. With no end in sight—we all wonder where this will end.

At every point our country is hurting economically. A great many politicians shout: “Do Not Touch” when it comes to defense spending. They say we must stand by our service people. We must protect our country from terrorists. They never say: We could put this money to better use by beginning to bring our troops home. President Obama has pledged to end this war—yet he asks for more money in the Defense budget than last year. Does this compute?

Thomas Friedman pointed out some time ago that we spend one million dollars to keep one soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq for a year. This war is becoming the most expensive in our history. When will it stop?

Hannah Lythe says the American Friends Service Committee asked youth around the country how they would spend this money. You might want to view some of the winning videos.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Hope on President's Day

Just what is President’s Day? Google the word and you will come up with a multitude of meanings for this holiday. It began in 1796 when people wanted to honor George Washington’s birthday. It was the first American holiday to honor an American citizen. Years later they changed the date from the day Washington was born to a date in-between Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. This day honored both men. But it 1951 President’s Day evolved to honor the office of the Presidency and not just one person. A little later, of course merchants go in on the act (as they have done on every holiday) and used it for selling one lone TV for $2.65 and a mattress for $5.00—just to get customers in the store. Never mind.

We need President’s Day desperately in this strange time in which we live to honor the office of President. When I was a little boy—a long time ago—when you heard the word, President—you knew this was a big deal. George Washington’s picture was on about every classroom wall I ever had. Up the road from Columbus, Georgia where I lived was Warm Springs where our President, Franklin Roosevelt went for respite and for help with a polio few knew he had. But he was our President—we mill-workers were sure he had saved us from the terrible days of the Depression. He could do no wrong—he was the President.

But that was once upon a time and long ago. This was before I learned that George Washington had his enemies and though some wanted to make him our first king—others wanted anybody but George Washington to lead our country. This was before I realized that Presidents had clay feet like the rest of us. FDR’s legs were encased in braces and he lived in a wheel chair, which the media never showed. He was called a traitor to his class and a socialist for beginning Social Security.

Lincoln was vilified—called ugly, a monkey and laughed at in many quarters. His wife was the object of much scorn and ridicule. And of course—though there is a towering monument in Washington that moves many of us to tears—he was killed by one of our own as he began his second term.

Funny we intone the name of Ronald Reagan—and he brought a lot of hope to our country during a down time. But we also need to remember he had clay feet like the rest of us. He ignored the AIDS crisis, which was just developing—and many lives could probably have been saved by his influence and leadership. Iran-Contra was a dark spot on his record, which few mention today.

You mention Bill Clinton today and people get misty-eyed. Chris Matthews has a special tonight entitled, “Bill Clinton: President of the World.” Have we forgotten our history? Clinton’s impeachment. All those folk, led by Jerry Falwell that were sure Clinton had murdered his good friend, Vince Foster. More than one wag had him running drugs in Arkansas. He had his enormous flaws—and he did a great deal of good—but we must keep reality in perspective.

Few doubt that George Bush had clay feet. When the history of our time is written—it will be noted loud and clear that he got us into a war under very false pretenses. That war continues to this day and over 4,000 of our service people have been killed—not to mention those thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some crazy people say he was behind 9/11. But George Bush provided prescription assistance to millions of the elderly. And he also helped literally thousands in the AIDS epidemic in Africa and other places.

The record is always mixed. Many have been enormously disappointed with President Obama. We want the war to end, we want Guantanamo closed. We want the terrible rendition movement, which still captures suspected terrorists and sends them to other countries to be tortured. We want everyone to have a job and we want to end this scary deficit right now. Yet he is the first African American President. He and his family are models for black people and for us all. He passed a Health Care Bill, which no other President in our history has done. He saved the country from the brink of bankruptcy. He fought hard to break the don’t ask, don’t tell rule in the military. But the furor over his birth certificate, the questioning if he is really a Christian but a closet Muslim, the unrelenting attacks on anything he has done is just unfair. I think that racism is alive and well in this country—but I do hope its power is receding.

I say all of this to say that President’s Day is about more than those we have elected to serve our country. It is a day for honoring the office of President. If I had one wish it would be that we turn down the rhetoric. That we give whoever leads us the benefit of the doubt. That we remember this is probably the hardest job in the world. We elected him because we believed in the hope he promised. If we stand by him, Democrats and Republicans—and other any President that we elect—we might just solve some of our hurting complicated problems.

This is a great country—but if we get too depressed about the present-day we need to look back on all those other days when we treated the office and all those who sat there with venom and hatred and undeserved disrespect.

Years ago James Goldman wrote a play, The Lion in Winter. In the play, Eleanor of Acquitaine and her three sons vie for the right to succeed King Henry. As they meet in the castle of Chinon, France, and begin to plot for the prize, John says, “Richard has a knife.” Eleanor answers, “Of course, he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is 1183 and we are barbarians. How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we’re the origins of war. Not history’s forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes not religions nor idea nor kinds of government nor any other thing. We are the killers; we breed war. We carry it like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God can’t we love one another—just a little. That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.” On President’s Day these are some of the things on my mind.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

My last blog piece was about the power of words. Salon's splendid piece on Beck-Palin bashing is worth reading. Turning up the heat does no good to anybody. We're all in this mess together and must find a way through this hard time. Snobbism may be fun but it serves no positive purpose for any of us. In this vast sea of words we can never throw overboard the word, United States.

(One of the healthiest web sites that I've found is It ferrets out the truth and exposes a lot of untruths from Democrats and Republicans. Fair and healthy.)

Approximately Correct - Words For the 7th Week after the Epiphany

"Let us raise our heads, hold hands
So that we don't lose our way in the tangled grass."
     --Czeslaw Milosz, "The Excursion in the Forest"

A man was introduced to a large gathering in this way: “This is the man who made $25,000 in potatoes in Maine.” As the man got to his feet to begin his speech he said:

"The introduction is approximately correct.”
“It was not Maine...but Texas.”
“It was not potatoes...but oil.”
“It was not $25,000...but $250.00.”
“Not made...but lost...”
“Not me...but my brother.”

Do you sometimes get the feeling that we are drowning in a sea of words that are only approximately correct?

Birth certificate—true or false?
Evolution—true or false?
Bible—literal or parabolic?
Liberal or Conservative?
Constitution—firm or flexible?
Global warming—real or hoax?
Vaccinations—good or bad?
Torture—necessary or wrong?

Words have lost their effectiveness in our time. Language has been devaluated and flattened. One begins to wonder if the Genesis story about all the people coming together to build a tower to heaven only to discover that each one spoke a different language and nobody understood anybody else is our story, too. One of the characters in Alice in Wonderland said: ”A word means what I want it to mean.”

In our Epiphany lessons we have been dealing with the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7 left us characteristics of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Here Christ gave his followers specific guidelines for living. Paul Minear, who was a very fine New Testament scholar has said that Matthew 5. 33-37 is a fundamental saying of Christ and basic to the life of the community.

Jesus gave his followers an admonition against swearing—saying that we ought to be able simply to stand by our words. He added:” Our yes should be yes and our no—no.” Why was this so important in the Kingdom? Truthfulness and integrity is at the heart of the Gospel.

During the Korean War General Dean of the U.S. army was captured by the Communists and was in imprisoned for over two years. During the second winter of his captivity he was told almost every day he only had a few minutes to live. They told him if he wanted to write some last word to his family this was his chance. So the General, thinking that was to be shot in thirty minutes sat down and wrote what he thought was his farewell message to his family. The General’s letter is fascinating. It contained only eight or nine lines. But in the middle of the note he wrote especially to his son, “Tell Bill the word is integrity.” He could have written the word: money or popularity or security or success or happiness. But General Dean told his son the word was integrity.

Our task in the church is to speak the truth. Paul underlined the point by saying we are to speak the truth in love. In a world swimming in half-truths there ought to be some place in our society where our yes is yes and our no is no. Isn’t Church the place where we can make our words are right and true and clear? And the beginning place for the Minister is the pulpit.

Epiphany is the season of light. That season is coming to an end very soon. But those that choose to use words right and true are surely the light-bearers in a very dark time

Friday, February 11, 2011

What Would Jesus Cut--Good Question or Corny Talk?

If we were to take out our talk of money and economics the newspaper would be empty. The pundits on TV would have little to say. The President could probably stay home and have morning coffee with his wife. Politicians would have little to do since there would be so little posturing to be done. Preachers might work longer on sermons not having to worry about the budget and how to keep the coffers, if not full—at least not empty. Wives and husbands might find they could put away their weapons and reach across their divides and find one another again. Divorced Mothers would not have to worry about those payments from ex’s that do not come. Neither would have to spend sleepless hours thinking about braces and hospital insurance and soccer fees and tuition for some college kid. If we could suddenly wave a magic wand and erase the word money college presidents would have time on their hands for education and old retirees would not stumble into the future wondering what happens next.

But no. None of these things will happen. We will have to struggle with money or lack of it for the rest of our lives. It is part of the human condition. Worries about money and the future drove Germany right off the cliff. Jesus was right, “Our lives really do consist of more than the abundance of things...” And yet—we’ve got to eat and make car payments and keep the utilities paid.

The politicians in Washington are sitting around tables trying to figure out what to cut. We owe much too much. We cannot continue this way. We will all have to tighten our belts. Will that include those on Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce? Will these decisions include the defense budget that spends one million dollars a year on one soldier? And will these efforts touch the sacred cows of politicians in almost every state where money pours out into projects, many of which we do not need? Will we slash Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and put this troublesome new Health Care Bill in the tank? Will we be asked to personally do our part in paying off these monstrous debts or just sit around waiting for yet another tax cut? Hmm.

Someone said: Study your checkbook and you will see where your priorities are. That exercise would hurt us all and it would surely embarrass our country. We cannot keep traveling down this rocky road of runaway spending. Our chickens really are coming home to roost and nobody in the hen house will be excused.

This is why I love Jim Wallis’ wise piece in Sojourners when he asks painfully, What Would Jesus Cut? Good Question. Read it for yourself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Needed: A Bucketful of Hope

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me a glorious summer."
    --Albert Camus

This time of the year when the ground is crusty and the wind cuts through you even in Alabama—I remember a poem that always lifts me up. Everybody I know needs a bucketful of hope. Carlyle Marney said one time that the problem is that too many of our buckets have holes in them. Nevermind. This poem I share with you may help plug up the hole in your bucket—and maybe nudge you down the road just a mite.

Temp Sparkman and his wife faced a terrible ordeal years ago. One afternoon in midsummer their little nine-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Weeks later, with little preparation, she was gone. They faced the terrible task of trying to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and try to live again. Later that year this young minister wrote this poem about hope in a terribly hopeless time.

“Was the grass really ever green
Were the sounds of birds really clearly heard
And did we picnic in the park only six short
   months ago
Here in mid-winter they seem so far away
The naked trees, the leaden skies seem always
   to have been
And seem out ahead for all time
Were things really ever green
And will the spring come back again?

Yes the spring will return
The gray, dull days of cold will pass
The routine now imprisoning us will be broken up
A new excitement will be awakened by new possibilities
The despair which now engulfs us will subside
A word of hope will come to us
Our presumption that all is lost will be replaced
   by a renewed expectancy.
Future will become a possibility again
The crush of demand will not dominate us forever
Out of liberation we will learn to choose
And in our choices to be secure.

The sadness now weighing upon us will be lifted
Joy will speak her acknowledgment of grief and
   will sound her call to us
The cause of sadness will not have vanished
But joy will come in spite of it
We will laugh again
We will sing and dance
We will celebrate the life now given us.

The conflicts now engaging our energy will be
worked through
No wind will sweep them from us
We will go through them
   and we will survive
Redemption will come of our transactions
Relationships will be rescued and restored
And where breaks are too deep to be one,
Healing will come in time, though apart
The tension tearing at our being will be resolved
We will not be destroyed.
Were things really ever green
And will the spring come back again
Yes, yes, as sure as e’re it were here
Yes, yes, as sure as winter’s here
Yes, yes, as sure as God is
The spring will return
And it will be green again.”

And if I had a benediction it would simply be: I hope this promise of spring will come to us all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

You Never Know

I went to his funeral last week. He was 89 when it just got too much—too many things wrong with him. He just finally let go and slipped away into the mystery. He taught English literature and writing in my college in Birmingham for years and years. I never had him for a class back there—but I knew him, talked to him. And when I came back to Birmingham I would see him from time to time. Little man, sharp wit, smart. He influenced I don’t know how many students. If you would see a picture under the word teacher in the dictionary—his photo would have been perfect.

At his funeral I learned something I did not know. When he first came to Birmingham in the early fifties he was horrified by the racism that was ever-present. Of course the college was all white. The drinking fountains said white and colored. On the busses blacks rode in the back. Injustice was pervasive. So this man called together the English teachers and a few others to try to tackle the problem. The Trustees got wind of their meetings and warned the teachers to cool it or else. This teacher didn’t stop. He decided that there might be another way to help students think about our racial situation. He suggested to the English faculty that no student would leave their English classes without reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. That book dealt with apartheid in South Africa and was a beautifully written book about that struggle.

As someone told that story at the funeral I remembered when I first read that book in school and what an influence it made on my life. It’s been well over fifty years since I had that course and read Paton’s book. But it’s still in my bookcase after all these years. Maybe I kept it because it became, for me, a hinge-turning moment in my understanding of racial discrimination. I didn’t know that a little man, a teacher in our school had opened the door in a closed society for a great many of us. We never, ever know when we drop a pebble in the stream how very far the ripples may go.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sermon Stuff

If you're into sermons you might want to check out CSS publications', The Immediate Word. I used to write for them and just started back. They use the lectionary and offer all sorts of good helps for the coming week. They have a great team of ecumenical writers that are doing a good job. I recommend.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sitting On the Bench

(I don't usuallly reprint anything I have written here--but some preachers might identify with retirement in my blog piece dated
March 9, 2009)

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

Bench sitting does not come natural for me. My wife keeps whispering at Church and at concerts: “Sit still…quit fidgeting.” I am trying hard to adjust but it ain’t easy. But I must confess on Saturday nights when the burden of Sunday is not on my shoulders, it feels wonderful not to have to go off in some quiet place and wonder if what you have written down will make any sense when everybody else is watching TV. Sometimes I used to feel like I didn’t have any word from the Lord and yet I would have to get up there on Sunday morning and say something. What I learned though is that it doesn’t always depend on me. The treasure really does come in clay pots from the Dollar Store! (That’s the preacher.) And on those Sundays when I didn’t have much to say often people would come up and tell me how much what I said helped. I wanted to say: “Huh?” But I smile and thank them. Later I have remembered that it isn’t about me after all. God (and I hope this is not sounding too pious) sometimes has taken our feeblest efforts and has spoken tenderly to somebody out there.

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Family's Grief Observed

Want to read a book that will lift your spirits? Try Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. His thirty-eight year old daughter, Amy collapsed and died suddenly from a heart condition no one knew she had. Her death occurred December 8, 2007. Amy was a talented pediatrician, a wife and a mother. She left three young children ages: seven, five and an almost two-year-old. Amy’s husband is a hand surgeon and had no idea how he could carry on without his wife. So the first question was: Who is going to help Harris, the grieving husband and his three children?

Grandparents Roger and wife Ginny volunteer for the job. They close up their house in Long Island and move to Bethesda, Maryland with their son-in-law and grandchildren. Their first morning there, the six year old asks the Grandfather how long they were staying. He replies: “Forever.”

So this middle-aged couple that had raised their own children found themselves turning back the clock and beginning parenting all over again. Suddenly, without preparation they are thrown into the world of little children. They must relearn bedtime stories, talking toys, non-stop questions. They also must deal with the harder work of wading through their own grief while helping their grandchildren and son-in-law, Harris deal with their enormous loss.

The book begins like this: “The trick when foraging for a tooth lost is coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps. The only way to be sure is to rub each clump between your thumb and index finger, which makes a mess of your hands. For some twenty minutes this morning, Ginny and I have been hunting in the kitchen trashcan for the top front left tooth of our seven-year-old granddaughter, Jessica. Loose for days but not yet dislodged, the tooth finally dropped into a bowl of Apple Jacks. I wrapped it for safekeeping in a paper napkin and put it on the kitchen counter, but it was mistaken for trash by Ligaya, Bubbie’s nanny. Bubbies (James) is twenty months and the youngest of our daughter Amy’s three children. Sammy, who is five, is uninterested in the tooth search, and Jessie unaware of it. We hope to find the tooth so that Jessie won’t worry about the Tooth Fairy not showing up.”

This story is hard to describe. It deals with grief, with two grandparents becoming almost-parents again for three young children. The book is funny in places and will warm your heart without being sentimental. In reaching out to one another this grieving husband, three children and two grandparents find their way through this dark thicket and help make the possible of the impossible.

In an age when so many family ties seem frayed and loose—Making Toast reaffirms the importance of family love and care. The author, Roger Rosenblatt has written novels and plays and is a Professor of English and Writing. He has given us the gift of a very fine book.

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

(This sermon is entitled "Then Shall Light Break Forth". The text is Isaiah 58. 1-12)
They had come back from exile. Little handful of Jews. Bringing what few belongings they could carry. A few animals. Their children. Sometimes their grandchildren. For fifty years they had dreamed of this day. Homecoming. Seeing old relatives, friends they had been separated from for years and years. Just being home—touching the base once more. Feeling they were where they were supposed to be. It was wonderful.

But it wasn’t that easy. Those of us who have gone back know that. Some years ago I went back to my twenty-fifth high school reunion. I had looked forward to it for months and months. But when I got there some of the old feelings I thought I had forgotten returned. The Class President was still running for office. The person voted the person who had changed the least wore a toupee. Old feelings for people I didn’t particularly like returned when I saw them after all those years. And the worst of it all was that I had the feeling, the balding middle-age man, that I was eighteen again, with my saddle oxfords and blue wool Baker High School sweater, sitting in the tenth grade wondering who I was and what I would do. Going back has a double edge always.

Israel knew that. Back home many of their relatives had died—or grown apart. The years had taken their toll and widened the distance. Some of their children had intermarried in Babylon and did not return with them. And that was a grief. Looking around, most of the landmarks: the Temple, their homes—the communities had been destroyed. As far as they look in any direction—everything needed attention. Everything.

And when times are hard people get conservative. They think about their own interests. They adhere closely to the old rules. They long for structure, limits, regulations—guidelines and sometimes dictators. Back in Israel they fasted. They observed every temple regulation as Leviticus required. And they began to rebuild. Farms, homes, and religious institutions—even the Temple began to take shape again.

Isaiah 55-66 addresses this very difficult time. Darkness, like a depression, settled over them and all they did. In their disappointment and frustration they saw no end to all this work and rebuilding. Doesn’t it ever get any easier, they asked? We’ve asked it too; doesn’t it ever get any easier? And so Isaiah came, saying let me tell you what God demands. Not fasting. Not attending synagogue. Not even keeping the Torah. Let me tell you how the light will come. Let me tell you how the dawn will bread. Let me tell you what healing is all about. Let me tell you what real religion really is.

There is an old Hebrew tale where the rabbi asks his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the days begins?” One of the students raised his hand, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” The rabbi shook his head. “No.” Another raised his hand: “It is when one person can distinguish between a fig tree and a grape vine?” “No,” the rabbi said, "Tell us the answer,” another student said. And the old wise teacher said: “When you look into the face of human beings and you have enough light (in you) to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Then you will know the light has come." Isaiah, then, gives his people and us three ways that we might better look into the faces of our brothers and sisters. And this is what God asks:


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you loose the hands of injustice. (58.6) And so he gives us this word, justice. It was first a legal term. They would keep the law given through Moses. This was their standard. They would obey what Yahweh had asked them to do. Justice was a rare word—then and now. It was not used often then or now. It was used interchangeably in the Bible with the word, righteousness.

It is also a judicial word. It meant fair. People are treated equitably. God was just—fair. He had a special regard for the poor, the weak, and this was the policy demanded of God’s people. But we know better. If there is one word that characterizes our tortured history in race relations it is injustice, inequity. We know that when you stand before the bar of justice—is that what we call it—those with the high-paying lawyers don’t serve as much time as those who have a public defender. Those with connections get their children off when they are arrested for drunk driving or possession of particular substances. We know that most of those on death row are from poor families—black or white. And not long before his death Martin Luther King began to see that is wasn’t a race problem as much as it was an economic problem. Tell me are there as many pot holes in the ritzy section of your town as you will find on the other side of the tracks? You know the answer. Inequity.

Do you know the book, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored? It was written by Clifton Taulbert. He grew up in a small town in Mississippi as a “colored child” (his words). He is now President of Freemount Corporation, which is a marketing and consulting firm. He is a best selling author and speaks all over the country. But in his book he tells about growing up in a tiny place called Glenn Alan, Mississippi. Life was hard. But his family worked hard. He started work in an icehouse when he was twelve years old. Moving around huge three-hundred-pound blocks of ice with his Uncle Cleve. It was difficult work, especially for a boy, but he was told if he worked hard, by the end of the summer. Before he went back to school Uncle Cleve would reward him with a trip to the circus in Jackson. So he worked and got ready and looked forward to the trip. He fantasized about the animals and the band and the beautiful women in sequined tights and acrobats on the high wires. He couldn’t wait. Finally the day arrived. Clifton got up early, put on his Sunday best, was ready at three o’clock in the morning when Uncle Cleve arrived. They wanted to be there by the opening at seven AM. It took a long time to drive that 150 miles from Glenn Alan to Jackson, but they finally got there. Clifton had never seen anything like Jackson, Mississippi. It was big and bustling with tall buildings and people everywhere. Finally they found the circus. They paid their money, bought their tickets, went through the gate and followed the crowd to the main tent. It was wonderful, sitting there—watching the sights, the sounds and the wonder. The band was playing, people were yelling and you could smell the popcorn everywhere. And then it happened, an usher came over to them and said, “You’ll have to leave. I am very sorry, but this ain’t the night for the Nigger’s.” And he and his Uncle got up and left the tent and went back home. Clifton said it was a long way back home. And they rode in silence. And he kept trying to hold back the tears and nobody said a word.


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free. (58.6) If the first word is justice, the second word is freedom. When Israel heard this word, freedom it stirred memories. They thought of that exodus when their forebears had crossed the sea on dry land to freedom. They thought of that second exodus when King Cyrus had come into Babylon and set them free and let them return home. Freedom. Wondrous word. Freedom from fate, from blind, impersonal, powers. Freedom from “this is the way it is.” Freedom from “this is the way the world works.” Freedom from sin. Liberated from the power that cripples. We heard Sam Smith speak here Wednesday night. How drugs and alcohol put shakes on his hands and feet and his soul and he did not care. Freedom breaks the cycle of whatever addiction we are hooked on. Alcohol, work, applause, success, making it, sex, exercise, material things, attitudes that misshape. Whatever it is that diminishes us. One man’s tombstone read: Born a human being, died a banker. It was not enough. He was never free.

There is a freedom from evil powers. Paul calls them powers and principalities. Carlyle Marney wrote a whole book calling them Structures of Prejudice. In which we devise systems where circuses only admit certain folk and gold courses and country clubs welcome everybody for a price, of course, except Negroes and Jews and the poor. It is a world gone wrong when there is not a place at the table for everyone. I had a friend who lived at a street person in Chicago for one weekend. He was given five dollars and dressed like a homeless person and had to make-do for himself. He was white. And he said on Sunday morning it was cold and he decided to get in out of the cold and go to church. And he said they let him in but it obvious they he was not welcomed. They kept looking at him with his smelly clothes and three-day beard. The powers and principalities are even in churches and in the hearts of Christians.

There were also the powers of death. William Stringfellow used to talk about how every institution gives itself to the powers of death. Government, business, education, religion. What have I left out? What is this charade in Washington? It is not life giving. What is this resistance to gun control when little children are dragging handguns to school all over this country and AK-47's are treated as handguns? It is the power of death.

That freedom also touched a people who loved the law. And then and now there was a religious law that bound them down. A fundamentalism that was more concerned with rules and regulations than people’s rights. And we have heard this book, this wonderful book used as a club against blacks and women and against gays and we might even add Muslims. Where did we forget those words from the freedom book, Galatians: “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 Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”(Gal. 3.28-29)

There was freedom from economic oppression. What was their year of the Jubilee all about unless it was that every seven years all the debts would be erased and people could start all over again. It was a dream that one day you would get out from under this heavy, heavy load. Rome ruled in Jesus’ time. Rome pushed them around and made all their decisions. Talk about big government. They had no free, these Jews. And they read Isaiah 58 in the synagogues and in the little house churches to know that there would come a time when they would be oppressed economically no longer.

In 1944, two weeks before the invasion of Normandy, Justice Learned Hand of the Supreme Court wrote these words about liberty. They are as fine a definition of freedom as I could find.

“I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you share your bread with the hungry, you bring the homeless poor into the house, when you see the naked and cover them, and you do not hide yourself from your own kin. (58.7) The light comes to the compassionate.

I like the definition of this word that Frederick Buechner gives us. “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Isaiah says it is not once but twice. If you let your finger move on down the page not only does he talk about compassion in this seventh verse but he returns to this theme in the latter part of the ninth verse: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”(58.9b-10)

This is our job always. A friend of mine, John Tadlock was Campus Minister at Jacksonville State (AL) for a long time. He told me one day about a young man from Fort Payne, Alabama that came to Jacksonville State as a freshman. Lonesome and looking for friends, he wandered into the Baptist Student Union. They sounded a call for Choir members and so he stayed. He had a pleasant bass voice. But he couldn’t read music and everybody else in the choir could read music. There were a lot of prima donnas and, of course, several music majors. He was quiet and friendly and didn’t say much. The Choir paid little attention to this newcomer. They told their in-jokes and had the best time with each other. A couple of them made fun of him behind his back because he was from little old hickey Fort Payne. Somebody laughed because he couldn’t read music. He finally got the message. You see, people always do. He quit coming to choir. He quit coming to BSU. He joined PiKA fraternity. If you go to the BSU office today at Jacksonville State you’ll see a framed picture of the visitor’s card that the young man filled out his first visit. Of all the people that sang in that college choir, music majors and all, only one has ever sung at a Governor’s inaugural ball. His name is Randy Owen, lead singer in the band, Alabama.

Maybe Isaiah was right after all. Your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly when you loose the bonds of injustice, when you let the oppressed go free, when you share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.