Saturday, July 30, 2011

Debt Ceiling - We need Light not Heat

Where is that preacher in California when we really need him? The one who kept telling us when Jesus would come back. Maybe it will happen and we won't have to worry about what just might happen Tuesday. If that doesn't work maybe we could get the Preacher in Florida that burned the Koran to burn the budget or the debt ceiling or just about anything to get us out of this mess. Or maybe we could get that tiny church in Kansas that keeps on harassing gays to suspend their campaign long enough to wave signs that would say something like: Hey, Politicians how about thinking about the people...and not your upcoming election. It would be a shame if we tanked just because a bunch of selfish, self-serving politicos couldn't handle the people's business in a healthy way.

Are you scared about Tuesday? I am. I hope when all this settles down we are a better nation. (I am dubious.) I wrote weeks ago about this wonderful information site that is fair "and balanced" --I ain't kiddin'--and gives some light where there is far too much heat and posturing. Check out FactCheck's latest piece which sorta clarifies for me what this " bid-ness" is all about. FactCheck comes out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

And if you are any kind of a praying person how about stopping and whispering: "God bless America"--we really need it. You might even add the President's name and maybe John Boehner--but I am not at all sure I would add Mitch McConnell.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Remember the Fallen

The war in the Middle East continues and continues. Our men and women still come home in flag-draped boxes. The latest figures we have of our troops killed (June 5, 2011) In Iraq and Afghanistan are 6,026. As our longest war rages on we must not forget those who have died and those that are serving for us while we go on with our lives. Elizabeth Warren pointed out last night on a television program the numbers of foreclosures of families who serve in this war. While they serve their country—banks are taking their homes. This is madness. Meanwhile our politicians play silly posturing games in Washington. The Washington Post has a web site of the faces of the fallen. You may want to read this moving web site.

You also might want to read Sebastian Junger’s splendid editorial piece in last Sunday’s New York Times. He asks “Why Would Anyone Miss War?” Junger is no wild-eyed liberal. He spent five months with a platoon of our troops with US 2nd Battalion in the Koregal Valley of Afghanistan. Though he is a writer, he was allowed to live as a soldier for this time. He tells that story in his book, War. He also filmed much of that five-month time showing footage of war in a film, “Restropo.” He writes about the real horrors of war—not only our casualties—but the casualties we have inflicted on innocents simply because this is the way war is. I keep remembering the English soldier, Siegfried Sassoon and his splendid poem that was written about peace during the First World War.

“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was fill’d with such delight
As prison’d birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away. . .O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
never be done.”

Let us remember the fallen.

Preaching and Lazarus

"Unbind him and let him go..."

If you enter the chapel at New College at Oxford, England the first thing you will see in the narthex is this life-sized statue. The figure is bound from head to foot. Jacob Epstein, an American sculptor created this masterpiece. It is called "Lazarus." When I first saw this stone figure I was struck by its power. The head of the carving faces toward the high altar and the face is marked with fear and confusion and perhaps wonder. Jesus has called Lazarus forth. He linger there bound and uncertain.

I took photograph after photograph of the stone Lazarus standing there in the church. I was so moved by the piece because I saw myself standing there bound up by many things. Since that time I have come to think that Lazarus represents all of us.

I keep the picture of Lazarus in the front of my Bible. As I stand on Sundays to preach some days the picture just slips out. Why do I keep it there? The photograph is a reminder that all of us are tied down by a multitude of things. And the Jesus of the Gospels calls us to break free and find new life. I look out on Sundays on a multitude of bound-up folks. Some come angry, some afraid, some smiling, some bored or sleep or just wishing they were somewhere else. And what I hope is that some good word will address them wherever they are.

Our sermons are filled with musts and oughts and shoulds. There are not many of those phrases, if any, used by the Lord Jesus. He did say, "Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden..." He came for all the Lazarus' out there.

Wouldn't it be something if we could hear the loving command of Jesus and let go of all those things that cripple and bind us down. I guess that's why I keep this photograph in my Bible.

(When I first started this blog I wrote this piece January 7, 2009. I don't usually reprint anything that I have written here. But as I preached last Sunday I saw the picture once more and as I looked out at the congregation, I wondered what they brought when they came. And so I print the photograph and column once more. I guess it is a prayer that what I say and others say behind the pulpit will help somebody out there who needs a graceful unbinding.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Truth About Debt Ceiling, Taxes, etc, etc, etc

"'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I want it to mean.'

'The question is', said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is', said Humpty Dumpty, which is to  be master--that's all.'"
          -- Lewis Carroll

For months I have been puzzled by the strange time in which we live. Maybe it's always been this way we just did not have 24 hours news to blare it out constantly. I find it so hard to believe that there are people who will not believe the facts even though they are handed to them.

We have a multitude of people that still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States. Somebody calls them:  birthers. Every piece of documentation we have states simply he was born in Hawaii--not Kenya or the moon or whatever. Some of these same people are just sure that our President is a closet Muslim. There is absolutely no evidence for this charge--he has been a practicing Christian for many years.

We have a group of people who represent us in Washington that proclaim that this raising the debt ceiling is no big deal. That we really don't have to act on this matter by August 2nd. Every economist of note has said constantly that this is a most serious matter. Experts say that the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling will be terrible to our already faltering economy. No wonder even the Republican leadership is very frightened.

The mantra of the Republicans is: "We don't have a spending problem, we have an income problem." FactCheck.Org knocks the half-truths of this matter in the head with concrete facts. I' ve written before of my trust of this group that fact checks all sides--Democrat and Republican. This particular article states clearly the fallacy of the spending/income problem. You can get an email from this fine group every week if you wish and I have found it most helpful.

This is the first (and longest) war where we never raised taxes. 20% goes toward defense. In the eyes of most politicians defense is a sacred cow which cannot be touched. Nicholas D. Kristof, in Sunday's New York Times has written a brilliant piece in which he points out that we believe that supporting schools in Afghanistan is the cheapest and most effective way to build a country. Consequently we have poured enormous amounts of money into schools there. He points out that at the same time our public school system in our own country is being grossly neglected. Read his words for yourself.

Maybe we ought to challenge the lies and half-truths that float around on the lips of politicians and regular citizens as if they were the truth. Maybe we ought to risk kindly speaking truthful words when we hear conversations about national matters that are simply not true.

Many of these people who do not believe the facts even after they have been shown--I  believe love this country. I would not question their patriotism. But I would say if we build a society on half-truths and lies--we are in for some very dark days.

"The first casualty in any war is truth."
        --Hiram Johnson,
             speech, 1917

Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer Garden Gives Me a Break

It’s not often that I get really personal on this blog. I usually deal with issues of the head or the heart. Lord knows we have had enough head stuff lately: Washington...Caylee Anthony, etc...Wondering if our economy is going to completely tank...and then there’s Michelle and Sarah and all those other wannabees. Maybe it is time to take a brief vacation from all the out there—and just think about the heart for a change. What brings me great pleasure? I’ve been working on my flower garden now for over ten years. When I moved here there was nothing in my back yard but weeds. So slowly, with the ideas from a friend I began to dig and plant and try. It was hard work. Most of the soil was pure clay and rocks. So I had to amend the soil. I never rotor tilled it like I should have. But I just dig holes, used pretty good soil and planted my plants.

Every year I cannot wait for spring-summer to come. Every spring morning I would wander out into my back yard and look for the tiny shoots that brought the promise of flowers. And to these I had added ferns and hostas and some ground covers. For a while I was fighting a losing battle with the deer. There were some days when I saw at least five in my yard. Deer love certain hostas—not all usually the variegated. They also love roses, phlox and pansies and even monkey grass. I have lost a great many hostas through the years thanks to the deer population of my county. Last year, besides the deer, something decided to uproot all my new plantings—especially hostas and some flowers, Stargazer lilies and hydrangeas. Following the advice of those that were supposed to know I tried everything to keep the deer away. 1) Fluorescent orange strips, which were supposed to be hung everywhere and scare the deer off. It did not work. But it did look like Halloween in my back yard. My wife kept worrying about the neighbors. 2) I next tried human hair. I heard this would drive them off. So I asked the Beauty Shop to save hair for me. Yuk. Well, I distributed it in great profusion—and guess what, it didn’t work. 3) Someone else said that urine would do the trick. Well, I want go into details about this effort except to say the gallon milk containers sure did come in handy. Nope—it did not work. 4) Someone else told me that Irish Spring soap would drive them away. Well I took string, bought a whole bunch of bars of soap and dangled them from the string on trees. My wife kept muttering again about the neighbors. After about two weeks of soap everywhere—I got rid of the soap. 5) My son sent me some stuff that you could mix up and spray the flowers and bushes. It worked, sorta. The stuff was so thick it kept getting my sprayer clogged up. It smelled awful—my wife kept wondering what the neighbors would think of the stench. Well it worked sorta. The deer disappeared for a season...but I finally gave up on this treatment. Just too much work for too little results.
Besides the deer there has been a veritable zoo in my yard. Rabbits, chipmunks. A fox came buzzing by one evening. Another evening I saw an old armadillo waddling by. About four times a year Mr. Turtle shows up but doesn’t stay very long. One of these creatures liked to dig holes in my grass and dig up my new plantings of flowers and hostas. The culprits were looking for grub worms, I was told. I was also told by some folk at the garden shop that there was little I could do about this.

Well, after about eleven years of trying something paid off. Perhaps my prayers, perhaps not. But this season my garden has been spectacular. Every morning, like the Lord God did in Eden, I walk around and just look and wonder and enjoy.

It’s worth the effort and the work. I never have learned what to do about the critters that come breezing through. But for some strange reason they, and the Japanese beetles have given me a break this year. Come fall I will be a little depressed as the flowers fade. But I’ll probably be at the Garden shop looking at the daffodils, the seeds that need to be planted early and thinking about next year.

I don’t know what this piece has to do with anything except everybody ought to have something that brings you joy and wonder and make you feel, even in retirement you have done something special. As for my wife she seems to be fairly pleased—the Homeowners Association has not written us up or hounded us out of the neighborhood.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sermon for 5th Sunday after Pentecost: Jacob's Ladder

Have you ever wondered how God works in our world? Doe he get up on Monday morning and put on a suit and kiss his wife goodbye, drink one last sip of coffee and get in his car, turn on the radio and go to work? Or maybe she sits there in a long, flowing robe pushing buttons marked “rain,” “sunshine,” cloudy,” “tornado,” “summer,” “winter,” “spring.” Or maybe God just sort of works the knobs like a video game and plays the combinations and sees what happens. Hmmm? “Wonder what that will look like”, he says. But somebody here is ready to say, “No! That’s not the way it happens. God started the thing and has let it go and if off somewhere hibernating while the world runs is merry course.” But if none of these theories are true--how does God work in the world? That’s our question for today.

In 1985 our family spent a summer in England seeing many things. Toward the end of that trip one of the members of the church where I was working volunteered to take us by car up to Bath. It was a wonderful city. And the centerpiece of the city was the Abbey Church—which somebody has called the finest example of English cathedral architecture that there is. But as we started to leave that building, standing outside the church, somebody said, “Did you see them? Did you notice the ladders?” “Where?” I said. And pointing up he said, “Outside the entrance of the church. And looking up on both sides of the doors to the church were these magnificent stone ladders. They were called Jacob’s Ladders. On one side the angels were climbing the ladder upward. On the other side the angels were slowly making their way down the ladder. Some of them were hanging on for dear life and some were gently coming down. Walter Scott said that when he was five years old one of his earliest memories was seeing those angels outside the church and when he looked up they scared him almost to death.

And so our sermon today is about ladders and angels. Angels ascending and descending because, you see, they tell us a great deal about how God works in our world today. In our Genesis scripture Jacob was in a terrible state. He had made life miserable for his brother Esau. They were as different as two brothers could be. Jacob had lied and cheated and stolen the blessing that was rightfully his brother’s. And when his brother—naive, trusting man, loving his little brother—when he discovered the trickery of Jacob he couldn’t believe it. He kept saying, “Jacob wouldn’t do that.” And when it finally sank in what he had done—stolen his blessing which was a big deal—his anger knew no bounds. “I guess I’m just going to have kill him." Trust betrayed is a terrible thing. And when Jacob heard  Esau was enraged he got scared and ran away. He ran and ran and did not look back.

And so this is background for the scene we find in Genesis 28. Here was a man on the run. It’s an all-too-human-story. It’s a story of how God works in a world filled with sin and failure and sometimes deceit and treachery.

God Comes to an Unlikely Place

What do we learn here? Well, we first learn that God comes to Jacob in an unlikely place. The place really had no name. Some though called it Luz. Isn’t that a wonderful name? Luz. How would you like to have come from Luz? It was a no-name kind of a place. The kind of a place that has an ugly sound or one that we don’t talk about very often. We know about those kinds of places, don’t we? Sometimes we call it loneliness. Sometimes we call it fear or anxiety. Often we call it numbness and other times we call it sickness. This place could be called cancer or heart attack or doubt or anger or even the death of someone we love. Where Jacob found himself was an awful place.

And Jacob, the fugitive—cheater and liar—found himself in a place where all the landmarks were gone. Nothing was familiar. Genesis says it was night. And he was afraid--it should be translated scared out of his wits--because he was. The interesting thing about this story is that it says that God come to this unlikely place.

Don’t you sometimes feel a little bit like Jacob? Life may not have turned out as you wished. There may be some things in your life that you just can’t fix—and you hate it. Maybe it’s the middle years of marriage and there’s more blah than anything else. Maybe you have lost somebody that mattered. And you sit here this morning hanging on but the landmarks are mostly gone. And some nights you wake up afraid. And I would say remember Jacob’s Ladder. Out there in the darkness where the wind blew and sand was in his mouth and it was cold and the animals howled just over the hill. And this story says that God came to this unlikely place.

What happened? The Scriptures say that God spoke to Jacob in a dream there in the darkness. Later Jacob would tell others: “There was this ladder and these angels ascending and descending”. His friends would listen and you could see them holding their lips together so they wouldn’t laugh. A ladder? Angels? Up and down from heaven to earth? This poor man must have lost his mind!

There is a Connection

What does it mean? It means there is a connection between up there and down here—between heaven and earth. That’s what it means. Between the man who was afraid and who had cheated and lied and done terrible things to his brother. God came all the way down. Jacob was in a deep sleep and suddenly he realized he was not alone. He was not left to his own pitiful resources. Heaven touched earth. His earth. And he was not cut off, even after all he had done. Paul Scherer one of my favorite preachers used to say, ”On that night of nights (Christmas) God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms.”

But that’s New Testament. Here we find a connection. In the very place where we are. Angels came to Jacob that night. One of the words for angels is messengers. And we have our messengers, too, don’t we? You know them. They came 150 miles to stand by that grave sad day your Mother died. Somebody brought a casserole when you needed to know somebody cared. Maybe it was a note or a phone call. I had a friend going thorough a terrible time and it lasted for quite a spell. And two or three times a week I would send him those crazy off-the-wall Far Side cartoons. Several years later when I was going through my own difficult time there came a letter in the mail--and he had sent me back every Far Side cartoon I had given him. Angels come in all sorts of ways. And suddenly we realize that we are not cut off after all. But we are connected. That nothing really does separate us from the love of God. Not even our meanness and deceptions. For you see, there is this ladder. It comes all the way down to where we are, even in the place where you are today. So we are not left to our own resources, that God. God comes. And this is one of the ways God works in our world.

God Spoke

But there’s more. You see God spoke that night. Not in a booming voice of stereophonic sound accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. No. God speaks but he sound like Billy Graham or old distinguished Walter Cronkite or I hope not like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. No. God spoke differently. He came in a dream. Jacob remembered most of what he had heard the next day. God said the strangest thing. “Lo, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you.”

Later Jacob would tell the story. And he would say, “You know, it was weird. God said I would not be abandoned. He said, ‘I will be there.’ He said he loved me and he cared for me. Me—the loser and the louse. He said, “You do not have to be afraid.”’ He said something I think I will always remember. He said, ‘I will keep you. Keep!’ “Stand by me’—that’s what the word keep means. “I will protect you like a shepherd fiercely protects his sheep. I will watch out after you.”

Out of the silence and the night or the loneliness or the fear or even the nightmares—we are to listen closely to what God has to say. Listen this morning to your life. Listen not to the outer sounds but to the inner sounds. For you see, God speaks to us just as surely as he spoke to Jacob. Underneath the confusion, there is that promise, “Behold, I will be with you. I will keep you. I will be in it All.” Whether it’s a lousy job or a hospital room or a nursing home—“I will be with you. I will keep you.” Remember the ladder. And remember the words God speaks.

Jacob Makes a Response

But there’s more. Remember what happened? Well, Jacob never did become an angel. There never was a halo around his head. But he made a response. Before the story ends he will make his way home. Twenty years had passed since he had fled from his brother. Twenty years since he had seen the face of the one he had betrayed—his brother, Esau. The meeting of those two is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible. Jacob came over the hill. “I saw his face and I saw the fullness of his face in his life.” He looked at what all the years had done to his brother, Esau. Most of his teeth had come out. His thinning hair was gray. The lines that he himself—Jacob—had helped create were written in the creases of that face. But Esau came with no weapons. He stood there with his arms wide open. And with a voice of many-colored emotion he say, “Jacob...oh much I have missed you!”And old burly Esau wrapped his arms around his brother. And Jacob said, “To see your face is to see the face of God.” And this is as good a definition of reconciliation as I know.

It never would have happened except for the ladder and angels and seeds planted deeply in Jacob’s heart. After that dream, Jacob was turned inside out. The scripture say hat he marked the spot that had no name. He called it, “Bethel.” Beth-El—which means “the house of God.” It means this is the place where God comes. Hebrew history says it became the second most important place of worship to the Hebrews next to Jerusalem. The place of no-name or a place some called Luz had become to place where God dwells. If this is true then let me say to you that live on a street with potholes and disappointments—remember this story. He comes all the way down to where we are right now. The streets where we live.

Jacob made a vow. He said, “I will love you. I will serve you. I will follow you all my days. I will even give you a tenth of all I have.” And isn’t this a proper response for us all? To make a vow. Or to renew some vow we made long ago. Our promise is as personal as the gospel is personal. It could be, like Jacob, to mend a broken relationship. It could mean knowing that despite all the hardships of our lives God really is with us. It could mean that it is time for us to do something for someone else.

I hope that you will remember that at the middle of it all there is this ladder—Jacob’s Ladder. It means that God really does come to unlikely places—as unlikely as where you might find yourself today. He comes all the way down.  This time...this place.And God speaks. And this is the way God works in the world.

(Both photographs are of the Abbey at Bath. The unique carving can be found on the West Front of the Abbey. Angels are ascending and descending on each side of the Main window.)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Illegal Immigrants--Second Stanza

When it comes to the immigration reaction by all these state laws I wonder if the cure is worse than the disease.  Georgia farmers are more than a little worried about their immigration law. Agriculture is the state's biggest industry and they employ 13% of that state's workforce. Migrant workers are leaving the state in droves. The Vidalia onion crop is grown in South Georgia and must be harvested by hand. Workers such as Edilberto, who came north from Mexico to work in the fields has been picking onions and other crops in South Georgia for 16 years. This year he will move on to North Carolina.

The Director of Georgia's Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association harvest most of their crops in May and June. This year they say they had half or two-thirds of the workers they had last year. The migrant workers follow the harvest north from Florida. Many are skipping Georgia. The Director estimates that the state's $1.1billion fruit-and-vegetable industry could suffer a $300million loss. Wonder what this means for Alabama?(The Economist, June 18, 2011, p. 37)

I started to print out David Gespass's splendid Letter to the Editor in The Birmingham News, July 6, 2011. He points out the injustice of the new Alabama law which goes into effect in September. It's great. Read for yourself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More About the Dominique Strauss-Kohn case: Wish I"d Said That

There is a thought-provoking article in today's  New York Times  by Mike McGovern. The title was intriguing. "Before You Judge Stand in Her Shoes." Since charges of rape and sexual assault have been dropped against Dominique Strauss-Kohn the spotlight has been turned on the woman that made the charges. She has been villified in every way. McGovern writes a story about where she came from: Guinea--one of the poorest countries in the world. 70% of the people there make less than $1.25 a day. The violence and poverty cause a great many of their citizens to escape as they can. He asks the question: When one of the most powerful men in the world has some kind of sexual liason with a poor maid in a hotel room where she works--is this not a classic case of the abuse of power?  Read it for yourself.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4th--Let's Write a New Verse to an Old Song

Outside Independence Hall when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ended, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."

On this July 4th—I remember something that Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote in his book, The Soul of Politics. He talked about the origin of the hymn of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” He said it was originally an old hymn sung in churches. Then the labor movement took the song over. And then it became the theme for the civil rights movement. And we know the song because it’s been sung around the world.

The lyrics came out of the famous Highlander Center in the hills of Tennessee. There many labor organizers and civil rights workers got their training. One story about the lyrics was that one weekend a group of black young people had gathered on retreat at Highlander. They were just finishing up their week in the chapel singing when outside in the dark they looked out the windows and saw that the place was surrounded by members of the White Citizens’ Council. They had flaming torches and guns and sticks. They told the young people to come outside. They refused. The young blacks bolted the door and stayed inside and somebody turned off the lights. They sat there in the darkness. Outside there was beating on the door and screaming and cursing. The angry mob yelled for them to come outside.

Quietly somebody began to sing new words to a tune that they knew. They sang:

               “We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
                 We are not afraid today.
                 O deep in my heart, I do believe
                 That we shall overcome some day.”

There in the darkness someone else began to sing and then another until the whole room was filled with “We are not afraid.” Outside, finally in frustration all those who had gathered with sticks, stones and torches turned and left because they did not know what to do. The angry voices had been silenced with a song. That night they wrote a new verse to an old song and it has been sung around the world.

Isn’t that our job as we celebrate another Fourth of July? It’s to take the old song and bring it up to date. To take this Constitution we’ve been hearing so much about...and take the Bill of Rights, which we haven’t talked about quite as much. Perhaps we should include the Pledge of Allegiance with those ringing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “With liberty and justice for all.” Maybe we need to bring all these words we hold dear up to date.

Fear runs through this country like these bonfires we’ve been reading about. People everywhere are besieged by many things. Fear is underneath the ranting of the Tea Party. Underneath their rage they do feel that our federal budget it out of control. Those especially of Hispanic origin are fearful to day. The Muslims in this country are no better. The ugly immigration laws that state after state has passed have not helped the immigration problem. Many of those that serve us in Washington or Montgomery are afraid—else why would they not come together to tackle our serious problems. Millions are without work. These two wars—or is it three—rage on and on. Down the street, around the corner—travel a mile until you come to a not-so-nice neighborhood. People there are trying to make do on very little. They have no health care. They have lost so much.

We’re all in the same boat. It’s like we are all in this little house together. It doesn’t matter our color or origin. And we are afraid. Maybe, just maybe we need to write a new verse to an old song. Whatever it is—underneath it all I wish it could sing:

                                 “We are not afraid, we are not afraid; 
                                  We are not afraid today.
                                  Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe 

                                  That we shall overcome some day.”

Wasn’t it the fearless that first made this country great?