Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holocaust story--The Challenge of a Weeping Willow

Holocaust Days of Remembrance begin May 1 throughout the nation. It is a time for remembering the genocide of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in World War II. This is a time for all of us to stop and ponder what hatred can do anywhere if left unchallenged.

If you travel to Dohany Street in Budapest, Hungary you will come to the Central Synagogue. In the courtyard behind that house of worship you will walk into the Synagogue’s Garden of Remembrance. It honors the memory of over 550,000 Hungarian Jews that were sent to various death camps by the Nazis. At the beginning of the war there were 8825,000 Jews living in Hungary. Only less than one-tenth of those remain today.

In the center of that Memorial Garden is a powerful monument. You will find a huge silver weeping willow tree. The memorial honors those 550,000 Hungarian Jews who died in the Shoah. The tree was designed by the artist Imre Varga. From the base of the monument eight branches emerge. On each branch are tiny leaves. On each leaf are the names of many of the Jewish families that were murdered. The inscription underneath reads: “Whose agony is greater than mine.”

Hungarian Jews had been part of that country and its culture for hundreds of years. Yet—as hatred and prejudice began to spread throughout Hungary the Jews were surprised to see their neighbors and governmental officials turn their backs on them.

What are the lessons for us, after all these years? The first lesson is that we cannot forget. Those who died in vain should never be forgotten. The next lesson is that hatred and prejudice in any form should never go unchecked. We live in a strange time. People are scared. The economy is up and mostly down. Jobs are scarce and many are fearful about the future. Lour politicians cannot seem to agree on any positive way forward. In a shaky time many people show their teeth.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the hate groups in this country are at an all-time high. The death threats on our first black President are far more than any other President in our history. The ugly lies that he is not like us, that he is not a real American, that he is not a Christian and that he is a closet Muslim go on and on. We have been here before. Remember the terrible hatred directed against Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy Bill Clinton and many other Presidents. How must black folk feel today as they hear these unending prejudicial remarks made about Mr. Obama? We must not let these ugly voices go unchallenged.

But there are further lessons. In every age there seems to be some group that we handpick for scapegoating. Take immigrants, especially Hispanics. Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee have all jumped on the bandwagon to stop “reasonably suspicious looking people” and ask for their papers. Those behind the laws say there will be no racial profiling. Think how all those Hispanics must feel as they drive to work wondering if they will be stopped and wondering if they are safe. State Representative John Yates of Georgia has said the threat of illegal immigrants is so great that border agents should be allowed to “Shoot to kill.” State Representative Curry Todd of Tennessee has compared pregnant illegal to multiplying rats. But it isn’t only immigrants that are under siege. One Virginia Republican Chairman was forced to resign after he sent out a tongue-in-cheek email talking about someone taking his dog to the welfare office. It went on: “My dog is black, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and has no clue who his Daddy is.” One North Carolina State representative has suggested cutting off financing used to treat people with HIV and AIDS because “they are living a perverted lifestyle” How far this is from the American dream.

Elie Wiesel lost his whole family in the Holocaust. He has said there is no such thing as illegal immigrants. He reminds us that when we use that term it is the first step to the gas chambers. No one, he says, is illegal. His circle would certainly include Muslims, gays, the poor, blacks, and anybody who does not look particularly like us.

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Time. It is a moment for real Americans to say we and us loud and clear. It is high time we put them and they on the back burner. The American dream was a place where all could find safety and freedom. The old dream was a place where “we could all sit under our own fig trees and none would be frightened and none would be afraid.”

Remember the Weeping Willow. In our time we do not need to add new leaves to that sad and sorrowful tree. It may take decades for us to really say all but that is the challenge of the weeping willow and Holocaust Week. This is a time not only to remember then but also to ponder here and now.

(The picture above is from the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague that dates back to 1439. Over 100,000 Jews have been buried there and there are hundreds of tombstones in this place of remembrance.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wish I'd Said That...

Every once in a while you read something that makes you want to jump up and say: "Yes." Goldie Taylor's splendid article, "Show Me the Papers" about President Obama's releasing his birth certificate is right on target. I don't know how we have come to this place except there is more racism in our society than I thought. I had hoped that we were further along... but I guess the first President to break the color line must face a lot. I remember reading when the first black man (who later became Mayor of Charlotte) came to  Clemson what a hard time he had. I remember the resistance of white coaches to draft black players for their teams and I remember reading the way Jackie Robinson was treated when he broke the color line in baseball. And I was in Louisville when  Muhammed Ali  was roundly hated by so many by being an uppity n.....Carson McCullers, the novelist said one time: "It is a shame that the whole human race needs somebody to look down on."

I hang on to that quote by Doestoevsky: "What keeps me going is that I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world's finale something so great will come to pass that it's going to suffice for all our hearts, for comforting of all our sorrows, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity. And I want to be there when suddenly everyone understands what is has all been for."

Friday, April 22, 2011

When I Think of Easter...

"When the world shakes its fist and says, Good

Friday! God comes back with dogwood, redbuds, and

jonquils; the crocuses and butterflies of life and says,

Easter! Easter! Easter!
  --Grady Nutt

Every Easter I remember the last scene in the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. The drama opened with Jesus riding into Jerusalem for the last time. The play ended with the Resurrection. The powerful drama of the last days of Jesus’ life took six hours to tell. The audience was given a break for lunch and then returned to their seats for the rest of the story.

I was not prepared for the Resurrection scene. The crucifixion had been particularly graphic and disturbing. When Jesus died the stage went dark. Jesus’ loved ones tenderly took his broken dead body down from the cross. In the last scene of the play the weeping women stood in front of two huge doors that represented the sealed tomb. They knocked on the doors and nothing seemed to happen. Then an angel came and, without saying a word, she unrolled a long white aisle cloth from the door down the steps toward the audience. As the grieving women looked on, the door slowly began to open. Dazzling light slowly filled the stage and the whole theatre. Jesus came through the streaming light. As he walked down the steps from everywhere a multitude of children came running forward, laughing and grabbing his legs. They were followed by a whole cadre of Adults. The chorus sang joyously as the drama ended.

That event was as close to Easter as I can understand. There are no words or events that can possibly do this day justice. Surely not the merchants hawking their Easter finery. Surely not the bunnies, the Easter lilies, the corsages, and those wonderful multi-colored eggs. Surely this day is more than the end of winter and the coming of spring.

Easter is light and hope and new beginnings and love and laughter. Somehow our old nine to five calendars are shaken loose once again. The predictability of our lives is thrown off kilter. Our worries about money or retirement or health or children or just the world, is put on hold at least temporarily.

Many who never darken the door of a church put on their finery and slip into some sanctuary today. Any preacher should be happy to receive even those once a year attendees. Who cares if some wife or child has reluctantly dragged them along? We are all in need of something to touch life’s hard places. It could be a bad lab report or last week’s funeral. It might just be: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. In every congregation are disappointments so large and so heavy that the bearers wonder if they can make it. There are still doors that do not open and tombs that are sealed shut.

This is always the setting of the Easter. The darkness, which is all-too-real, comes tearing through our lives in unlikely moments. These interruptions are never the last word. There is light, so blinding it hurts your eyes. There is wonder so strong that you may have to hold back the tears. There is joy and laughter at the heart of even the most cumbersome of our lives.

What changed those petty, cowardly disciples and turned them inside out? There is no explanation except Easter came with its light and new life and enormous hope. Those first believers wrote the story over and over until we have four gospels accounts. Jesus’ followers founded a church, which for better or worse still keeps on ticking despite church bombings and fires and all-too-human members and preachers.

Those first disciples passed the torch from generation to generation until after all these years, it has come down to us. Could this story only be wishful thinking? Some say so. I choose to remember a large door and blinding light and a figure people thought dead and the laughter of a multitude of children. And during the steamy dog days of summer or the cold, cold days of winter I hope I still recall the miracle of Easter and the promise it always brings.

The Fourteenth Station: Jesus was Buried

"Then , having bought a linen shroud,
Joseph took him down,
wrapped him in the linen,
and laid him in a tomb
which had been cut out of rock.
Finally he rolled a stone across the
  entrance of the tomb."
   --Mark 15.46

Our little group who has followed the Priest through station after station now comes to an end. So here is the last station. Jesus is placed in Joseph’s of Arimathea’s tomb. Nicodemus helped with the details. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The morning after death...” Things are quiet. Nobody wants to talk. We just shuffle around but mostly spinning our wheels. It was a terrible time for the disciples. Remember the Emmaus Road story in Luke? It was after Easter—after. And those two disciples shuffled along burdened down with sadness. When a stranger appeared he asked them about their sad demeanor. They told him the whole story. About the triumphal entry and those last days of Jesus’ life. And then they told this stranger the saddest thing: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Standing before this last station—looking up we understand that sad sentence. We had hoped. We had hoped we’d see him grow up and flap his wings and soar—yet he died much too soon. We had hoped we would have her a long time—and yet when our mother died when I was ten, the boy said. We lost so much. We had hoped the marriage would work out. That day we stood there with the candles flickering and dressed to the nines—surrounded by friends and family oh, we had hoped. We had hoped dear Kenny had not been killed on that rain-slicked highway when he was twenty-one. We had hoped this cancer would not spread but the news is not good, as we had hoped.

Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus kept walking with the stranger pouring out their hearts. Toward the end of the journey they suddenly realized all their hopes were not in vain. It was the Lord that walked through the gloom with them.

And so the sadness of our “we had hoped” is never the last word. Easter will come. It will not bring back what we have lost—but new chapters are to be written. New songs are to be sung. New possibilities will break open in ways we never imagined. So standing here with this little company that has moved from station to station we know deep in our hearts that sealed tomb was not the end. Not for them and not for us.

A Little more about the Mortenson Story

One of my favorite writers Is Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. He has a sensitivity for hurting people and many of his columns deal with these concerns. He knows Greg Mortenson. he has visited his schools in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So I read carefully what he had to say about this Mortenson debacle. Many of my friends think Greg Mortenson is a charlatan. I am not too sure about that. I come down on the side of Kristof. Read his article and see what you think. By the way, Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer winner and has his head on straight and his heart in the right place.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the Cross

"Near the cross of Jesus
there stood his mother,
his mother's sister,
Mary the wife of Clopas,
and Mary Magdalene."
--John 19.25

+       +       +      +      +

"Where the lamb died
a bird sings.
Where a soul perishes
what music? The cross
is an old-fashioned
weapon, but its bow
is drawn unerringly
against the human heart."
--Sure, by R.S. Thomas

So we move now to the thirteenth station. Our little group that has followed the Priest all the way through this journey just stands looking. No one says a word--even the Priest is silent. We cannot miss the tenderness of this station. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus both secret disciples are secret no more. At great risk they take down from the cross the broken, bloody body of the dead Jesus. Legend says that Mary came forward with her arms open and they place the heavy body of her son into her lap. Is there are sadder picture anywhere?

In his early twenties the unknown artist Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt this scene of the Virgin and her dead son. There have been many paintings and sculptures of the Pieta but this rendering became the most famous. It is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Why are we so drawn to this life-sized sculpture? Unless the scene touches something in our hearts. Maybe we are reminded that no parent should survive his or her children. Maybe it reminds us of someone we have lost along the way.

Rembrandt painted scene after scene of the whole crucifixion experience. John Fort Newton tells what he saw in one of the artist’s last renderings of Jesus dead on the cross. He describes how, in the painting at first you see only the utter collapse of Jesus. The hours of suffering have done their work. Jesus is now dead. But Newton said if you look more closely and your eyes get used to the dimness of the painting you see something that is easy to miss. Two strong, gentle hands support the figure of Jesus. These were the hands of God. Newton went on to say that as he continued to look at the whole scene the shape of a great face begins to emerge. It is the face of God whose face is seamed with sorrow and whose eyes show an enormous sadness.

The little cluster that have followed the Priest look up. Those two hands hold the dead Jesus and all of our loved ones who gone on—and those same hands hold us too. Is it any wonder, even after all these years that we come back to this thirteenth station of the cross?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross

"We have had names for you:
The Thunderer, the Almighty
Hunter, Lord of the snowflake
and the sabre-toothed tiger.
One name we have held back
unable to reconcile it
with the mosquito, the tidal-wave,
the black hole into which
time will fall. You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibily of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light."
--from Tell Us , by  R.S. Thomas

As we stand here before the Twelfth Station of the Cross we don’t know what to say or what to think. The old priest who has led our little cluster from station to station on this hard journey says it for us: “It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the curtain of the temple was torn in the middle. Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘It is finished, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Then, bowing his head, he died.’”

A.E. Hotchner in his biography of Ernest Hemingway called Papa tells that toward the end of Hemingway’s life he was very sick and depressed. He was in the hospital when his old friend, Hotchner came to see him. Toward the end of their visit Hemingway told his friend he wanted to tell him something. It was hard to hear the old writer because his voice was low and gravelly. Hotchner bent low to hear Hemingway. “Remember.” he said, “me telling you about that time I got scared and got baptized. I have laughed about it hundred times. What a joke: me, baptized.” Hemingway looked at the bedside table and reached over and took a tiny crucifix and held it tight. “What I want to say, Hotchner, that was the best thing I ever did.” And he kissed the little cross.

Days later still depressed Hemingway would take a gun and kill himself in Idaho. Did those outstretched arms on that cross reach down even to an old depressed man who could stand it no longer? And do those arms still reach out to whomever it is that hurts, is broke, addicted or overwhelmed.

There isn’t much to say, really standing here looking up at this station. We grow silent. Some in our group wipe the tears from their eyes. We know that cross beam comes all the way down to where we are. Not only the whole world in his hands, but you and me brother and sister in his hands. Thanks be to God.

(The fourteenth century Coventry Cathedral was reduced to ruins by fire bombs during the night in November, 1940.  This was the night when Coventry suffered the longest air raid of any one night on any British city during World War II. It seemed to be the end of a great church building which had been a citadel for the worship of God.

After the bombing, large fourteenth century hand-forged nails which had fasterned together the ceiling beams littered the ruined floor of the sanctuary. These nails were formed into a cross of nails which since have been a silent statement that God forgives. The church was rebuilt--and the cross of nails stands as a witness that Christ lives--in the now.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Second Thoughts about Greg Mortenson

"But we have the treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."
   -- II Corinthians 4. 7                        

A friend of mine called and said "Sixty Minutes' was going to do an expose on Greg Mortenson Sunday night. Well, I watched and it made me sick. It is time for us to give people the benefit of a doubt. It is so easy for us to rush to judgment. Some novelist who has not sold as many books as Greg was interviewed twice during the fifteen-minute segment. “Greg lied,” he said. The author went on to say the story of Greg being nursed back to health and building a school in the little village for appreciation was sheer fabrication. Questions were raised about how the enormous sums of money were being spent—leaving the audience wondering if most of this money he is raising for schools does not go into his pocket. Two or three people in Pakistan were interviewed and said they had no schools or the stories Mortenson was telling about them were not true. Well, I don’t know if they were on the up and up. The segment briefly mentioned the thousands of girls that Mortenson has helped school—but little was said about the work he has done since 1993. The program may have been something said about his influence with the Pentagon or the generals he has influenced. Many think that Three Cups of Tea by Mortenson has had enormous impact on the changing direction of the war. When all is said and done Mr. Mortenson has built schools in places where no one else has—certainly not "Sixty Minutes". Leaping over cultural barriers that seem insurmountable is a miracle in itself. Maybe "Sixty Minutes" is right. I think they have rushed to judgment. I do wish that Mortenson had spoken to those that put together Sunday night's piece. Maybe he could have tried to clarify his position. I may be completely wrong—this man could be a charlatan—but I think not. We shall see.

A little later in the program Bill Gates was taken on and smeared by a colleague. Bill Gates has given millions of dollars away to help make this world better. That was barely mentioned. Remember several years ago when the press splattered all over the papers that Mother Theresa was a hypocrite because of Christopher Hitchens’ book? Riffling through her journal he discovered she had doubts—some days she wondered if there was a God. Anybody who has traveled the faith road knows the ups and downs we half-believers encounter. Remember Pilgrim’s Progress?

I used to have a saying when people in church would come up to me complaining about Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, and Pastors that fall from grace I would always say: “Remember there is only one Jesus.” I like the words somebody said, “God always writes straight lines with crooked sticks.”

There are not many heroes left. We’ve pulled most of them down and learned far more about their lives than we should. Cynicism is running rampant. Let’s give folk the benefit of a doubt. Even President Obama. Even Mr. Ryan with his budget proposal. Even the Tea-Partiers. And even we liberals. Wait and see...that is my response to this whole bru ha about Mortenson. About us all.

(You might want to read Greg Mortenson's response to the Sixty Minutes program.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Greg Mortenson is my Hero

"When your heart speaks--take notes."
                     --Greg Mortenson

In a time of petty politics and depressing news almost everywhere—it is uplifting to meet someone who gives you hope. This happened to me this last week when Greg Mortenson came to Birmingham last week. I had read both his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. Both books set my mind reeling. Mortenson’s guiding principle is: “When your hearts speaks take notes.” Mortenson’s sister died from a massive seizure in July 1992. To honor his sister’s memory he decided to climb Pakistan’s K2 the world’s second highest mountain the Karakoram Range. On that climb he almost lost his life and was nursed back to health in a village called Korphe. Mortenson was moved by their love and care they gave him. While recovering he noticed a group of children sitting in the dirt writing with sticks in the sand. They had no schools. And so Mortenson followed his heart. He promised that village that he would help them build a school.

He had no idea where that promise would lead. Out of that effort grew a humanitarian campaign and Mortenson dedicated his life to promote education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He faced enormous difficulties in his work. He was captured for eight days by the Taliban. He has survived two fatwehs from enraged Islamic mullahs, been investigated by the CIA and received death threats from Americans after 9/11 for helping Muslim children.

Yet he has kept going. He has built over 145 schools in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has helped provide education for 64,000 children—52,00 0f these have been girls. His idea was that if you educate girls you influence the whole community. Mortenson’s philosophy is so simple it seems unpractical. He believes in working with the local leaders and people. He does not believe in a top-down approach. He says if we would work with the tribal leaders in these countries that great changes could take place when the local people are empowered.

Remarkably, his work has been recognized by the Pentagon. His book, Three Cups of Tea has been read by General David Petraeus, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other leaders in the highest echelons of our government. He has spoken at West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies to help troops deploying to Afghanistan understand cultural issues and tribal etiquette. Newscaster Tom Brokaw calls Mortenson “one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, who is really changing the world.”

I once heard someone say that if you stood in the presence of art and you were moved to tears you would know you were in the presence of greatness. As Mortenson wound up his talk and answered our questions I felt tears in my eyes. I was listening to a very great man. We cannot do what Mortenson has done—but all of us can follow our hearts and if we take notes—who knows what will happen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Eleventh Station of the Cross--Jesus is crucified.

As we move to this eleventh station of the cross—the little group that has followed the Priest around the church grows quiet. The Priest himself says nothing. They all just look up and stare. This is the eleventh stop on the journey. They have come all the way to Calvary. Those who stood there on that dark Friday afternoon must have winced at the hammering of the nails into his hands and feet. Some I am sure could stand it no longer and ran away in grief or sorrow. Who could imagine such pain?

No Gospel mentions the hammering of the nails yet they are a real part of the story. Around the world in most churches you will find some symbol of the cross. And of all the things we can say about these nails and suffering probably at the heart we see that kind of God we have. The Church in every age has battled the Gnostic heresy. They taught Jesus appeared to be like us. He merely played a part—but he was different from you and me. But every gospel has a crucifixion story and despite the different variations—we see God incarnated. In the play Green Pastures speaks of the humanity of Jesus in black dialect. In that drama when they come to nail Jesus to the cross, off to the side we God standing there with his face in his hands wracked with sobs. And one character was heard to say: “Even bein’ God ain’t no bed o’ roses.”

This eleventh station reminds us that God was no more fully human than his son was stretched out on Calvary’s hill. Jesus is the God of the wounds and the wounded. Ireneus said, “He became like us that we might become like him.” All we wounded ones, which really takes us all in, stand and look and ponder. He is one with us.

But we now know that the Cross was not the last word of the story. The nails hurt and the scars which would always be there. But these nails did not have the last word. We live in a Good Friday world. There is divorce and pain and suffering and war and fear and terror. There are sleepless nights and frazzled relationships everywhere. And the pain goes deep as it did in those pierced hands long ago.

So we believe that the nails that wound and cripple us will not last forever. This story is yet-to-be-continued. We cannot stop here—we must move on. Archbishop Tutu of South Africa came to Birmingham some time ago. In the question and answer time someone asked him, “Do you see any real hope for the Middle East?” And the Archbishop whose life bears his own scars replied, “Do I see any hope for the Middle East? Of course I do—I am a Christian.”

One of my favorite poets is William Stafford. He wrote in one of his poems: “I have woven a parachute out of everything I have known.” Pain and suffering and injustice do not have the last word. The nails cannot hold. We cannot stop at the eleventh station. Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Tenth Station of the Cross--Jesus is Stripped of his Garments

"When they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among them  by casting lots."
           --Matthew 27.35

In church, shuffling with the crowd we come to the tenth station. The Priest points up and simply says, “Jesus is stripped of his garments.” Nobody says anything. The congregants just look up and ponder the embarrassment and the shame. Jesus stood naked as the day he was born. The soldiers peeled the last garment he wore—it must have been hard because the cloth stuck to his bloodstained back. Finally they jerked the material away and gambled for the last tunic Jesus ever wore.

Why would the church stop at this tenth station year after year? Why talk about the naked Jesus—why not simply move on to the nails and hammering on that hillside. I do not know why they and we stop at this place unless somehow, like the other stations, this is a word for us all.

Ever have the naked dream? Psychologists say it is prevalent in the field of dreams. In the dream we find ourselves naked. Not a stitch of clothing on. And it’s time to go to work or get the newspaper or go out and preach a sermon. Stark naked. Sometimes we argue with ourselves, “Well, if I just act cool—pretend I have clothes on—nobody will notice.” Ha. We know that is foolish. It is always a disturbing dream. Of being found out. Or standing there before the whole world in shame and indignity. Bereft of our armor of makeup, Brooks Brothers suits and Ralph Lauren shirts just disappear. We wake up, finally and slowly coming back to the real world sighing and saying, “Whew.”

Maybe the dream gives us a clue that before it is over we will all be stripped and humiliated. It happens in the hospital in those little gowns that cover almost nothing. It happens in nursing homes when the old are tossed around, diapers changed, bathed by some stranger—exposed to whomever comes in at the time.

We hear the terrible news of those countries where husbands are forced to see their wives raped, husbands castrated before their wives—children violated and executed. Whatever it is that forces us into indignity and shame is really a stripping away. But those of us from a more civilized world have our own vulnerabilities. When a man or woman loses their jobs. When breasts are whacked off, when men lose their prostates, when arms and legs are severed—leaving us less than whole—we too know something of stripping.

In the Samaritan story a man was robbed, left naked and pushed into a ditch to die. In the story of the Prodigal the boy left home, spent all his money and woke up one morning naked as a jaybird. Somebody bound up the wounds of the man in the Samaritan story and saved his life. A father, arms outstretched pulled the ragged garment filled with holes from his boy’s body—washed him whiter than show—and put on his back a robe...a soft, soft robe. And Paul maybe remembering one of his many stints in prison wrote: “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God...not hardship...not distress...not peril...not sword...and not even nakedness.” And if that were not enough he said it a second time: No thing shall separate us from the love of God.”

And so, looking up at the naked Jesus—maybe the church kept this embarrassing station on the journey as a holy reminder. That all those things that dehumanize and strip away our personhood can separate us from the father. Even when we bring them on ourselves. Why this tenth station? Once upon a time the Lord Jesus was stripped for us all. No wonder John would write there at the end in the book of Revelation: “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” And John, tears streaming down his face must have written with crooked fingers, “These are they that have come out of the great tribulation...they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Naked no more. But clothed and loved and kept by One whose son was stripped long ago.

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53.4-5)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Ninth Station of the Cross--Jesus Falls a Third Time.

"I prayed to see the face of God,
Illumined by the central suns
Turning in their ancient track;
But what I saw was not His face at all--
I saw His bent figure on a windy hill,
Carrying a double load upon His back."
                     --J.R. Perkins

  As we stop at the ninth station—we look up—this station looks familiar. Jesus falls. Wait—haven’t we been here already?  Did not Jesus fall back there in the third station soon after they laid the heavy crossbeam on his shoulders? But that was not the only fall. When we stopped at the seventh station Jesus fell a second time. And now—staggering under a load that seems to have no end--Jesus falls a third time.

There is an old story that a farmer talked with a monk one day. On the hill there was the monastery. And the farmer wondered what went on behind those stone walls. And so one day he asked a monk who had come to the village. “Let me ask you,” he said, “what do you all do up there on the hill. Praying, singing—serving God? It must be the closest thing to heaven on this earth. What do you do behind those walls day after day?” The old monk replied, “We fall down and we get up and we fall down and we get up.”

Don’t we all fall down and we get up. Again and again. Sometimes the falls are from physical weakness or old age or exhaustion. Sometimes the black dog called depression pushes us down. But other times when we stumble and fall it is our own doing. We break the rules that govern the scaffolding of our lives. We break our own hearts in shame and disappointment. But more than these sometimes our falls are like ripples in the stream. They go on and on. They touch mates and children and friends and a great many more.

Frederick Buechner once pointed out in a sermon how close we all are to the whiskey priest in Graham Green’s novel, The Power and the Glory. The hero of the book if there is a hero is a seedy, alcoholic priest who has been on the run for months as a fugitive. He us caught and the Mexican government condemned him to death. The night before his execution he sat in his cell with a flask of brandy and thought back over the failures of his life. “Tears poured down his face. He was not at the moment afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to be a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint, and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place.”

We can identify with this sinful priest who has fallen from grace. But as we look this ninth station and Jesus’ third fall we might be moved not simply by the human Jesus stumbling under a load too heavy but something more personal. But knowing, like the old failed priest we, too have fallen from grace. Again and again. But thank God this is not the end of the story. The monk was right: We all fall down and get up and fall down and get up. Hopefully, through the years the falls are fewer and farther between as we walk our own via dolorosa. We get up and begin yet again. Not by our own power—but in the power of the one who fell long ago on a Jerusalem road.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Eighth Station--The Daughters of Jerusalem.

"A great number of people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, 'Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your  children.'"
             --Luke 23.27-28

We shuffle along with the others in the group. The Priest has stopped by every station and read the holy words. Now we look up and see the figures of the women weeping for the suffering Jesus. There are only two occasions of the fourteen stations where Jesus, on the way to the cross, addresses someone. He has already spoken to his mother in the fourth station. Now he speaks to the daughters of Jerusalem. “Daughters, do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and your children.”

It is no wonder that the only words at Calvary were spoken to women. Baptist preacher Randall Lolley once pointed out that the women “were last at the cross and first at the tomb.” Take the women out of the story it would be smaller, more constricted and far different than we find it today. Why along the road, the via dolorosa there would be no fourth or eighth station. Where would the world be without the Elizabeth’s and the Anna's and the Mary's and the woman with a sordid past they threw at his feet? Or that woman at washed his feet with her hair. No man would do that. And then there was Mary and Martha and, as Mark puts it, “the other women.”

Standing there looking up at the daughters of Jerusalem we know those other women, don’t we? In my first church Rosa Claire came almost every day to check on the baby. In another place Frances and Beulah would keep our little girl and they loved her as much as we did. In yet another church Margie, the nun, loved our little red-headed boy into learning and discovering wonder. And dear Edwina would come by the office to let me know she was praying for us. Liz, later would call and bring her macaroni and cheese casseroles and reach out, like those other daughters to the hurting. Becky, in a hard place held our hands up and kept us going. And Betty, in her quiet way helped a whole community remember the poor and dispossessed. I have my list—but you have yours.

Those daughters of Jerusalem are those who work and help and reach out and work miracles that no man could ever do. No wonder Jesus spoke twice on that hard road to them. Jesus told them not to weep for him but for themselves and for their children. Did his understanding of weeping mean more than shedding tears? Surely.

And so we stand looking up at this Eighth station. It is a word for the old bag lady rummaging in the garbage can behind the store. And in that cluster I think I see that single mother of three who has been up since six at McDonald’s serving coffee and sausage biscuits. And maybe there also are all those in Egypt and Rwanda and Libya raped and discarded. And perhaps we might add the women at Wal Mart. And so maybe we are to turn away from this station to move beyond the tears to console, to make life better—to care and to do. Thank God for all the daughters of Jerusalem who have made Jesus walk and ours much better because of their tears and care.

(You might want to read and weep at the newspaper account of the abused Libyan woman that dared to speak out.)


Friday, April 1, 2011

The Seventh Station--Jesus Falls A Second Time.

"Is it possible that he
who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over
for the sake of us all
will not grant us all things besides?"
          --Romans 8. 32

The story dates back to medieval times. It was the season of Lent. The old priest announced that morning that in the evening service he would preach about the Cross. So that evening, here and there, from different roads the people came. Some were very old, hardly able to walk. Some came holding the hands of their little children. Some came alone. And as the people gathered and the darkness began to descend in the little church, someone came forward and lit the candles on the altar. In a few minutes the old priest came forward and took one of the candles. He walked up the steps, behind the altar where the crucified hung. Tiptoeing he lifted the candle high until you could see the crown of thorns and Jesus’ face. And after a long time, the priest moved the candle to the hands, first one hand and then the other. Light shone on the pierced hands. Then the priest moved the candle to the Lord’s wounded side. After that he stooped low and illuminated the nailed feet of the Lord Jesus. Nothing was said. After a long time—the priest blew out the candle and the people left the church silent and weeping. They had seen a sermon and it touched them all.

As we pilgrims move now to the Seventh station of the Cross—Jesus falls for a second time. Look closely and you may just see yourself. For the Incarnated Jesus in this fall stands with any of us who have suffered, who have known defeat, who have fought and lost. And who among us has not known brokenness? In marriage, in family, in personal life—sometimes in some job. Maybe looking back feeling that so much that we have given our lives too has been for little or nothing.

Move even closer. Look at the fallen Jesus. He is at one with all those poor and dispossessed that have few to speak for them. In this fall he reaches out to any sinners who have stumbled and fallen—sometimes humiliated and ashamed. This Christ, bearing this heavy cross accepts us all. None of we fallen ones are beyond the pale of his love and care.

He will somehow stagger to his feet and move on. But this is the place where he meets us one and all. None of us are left behind. Standing here before the fallen Jesus we know, like our Lord, we can make it. “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4.16)