Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Hell You Say!

"Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company."
      --Mark Twain

The biggest hoop-la lately is Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. (Subtitle: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.) Takes in quite a bit of territory. The book just came out March 29 and yet it has a lot of people enraged. Bell was even interviewed on CBS the other morning. He has a video, which you might want to check out stating his case. He said that one of his members told him that Gandhi was in hell. That remark set Pastor Bell to thinking. Kiran Thadhani has written for Sojourners: “Really, the potential for a Hindu peacemaker to be in heaven upsets so many people?” Pretty good question.

Bell’s book had made the top ten list of topics discussed on Twitter. People are taking sides. Poor Rob, I am sure his phone has not quit ringing. What do I say about all of this hell talk?  I would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr when somebody asked him about the afterlife. He said, ”I refuse to conjecture on the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” That just about sums it up for me. Jesus said don’t judge who’s in and who’s out.

I grew up in a church that was sure we had all the answers. Those that had been properly baptized, said the right words were gonna get in. Those who had been sprinkled, led by some Pope, didn’t agree with our very narrow interpretations about everything or worship like us--would certainly not get in.

Bell makes a pretty good point by saying that God’s kingdom is a pretty big place. He breaks that down to say: all nations, everybody. He’s talking about folk with different skin colors, languages we cannot understand, dialects, accents, eating all kinds of food and having strange customs and traditions that seem downright un-American. He says they may just be included in the circle. Who’s in—who’s out? I do not know. I do know some of the meanest people I have ever met were in church just about every Sunday. I sometimes wonder where they will be. And down the street—one of the kindest people who never darken the door of anybody’s church--makes you glad you’re a human being when you are with them.

This hell talk sounds mostly like an intramural sport. I don’t believe the discussion will really make it into the Final Four. Jesus spent most of his time with the wrong kind of people—not because he was afraid of their going to hell as much as he laid awake at night thinking about how hungry they were, how much they had suffered, how broken their hearts were and how they could be touched and loved and find a better life for themselves and their families.

America is in two wars and with another waiting in the wings. Congress trying to slash just about every item that deals with human need. Many rich and well heeled are worrying about health care somebody else may get. With a foreclosure on every street—seems to me we have better fish to fry. Jesus said it well—why not try to take the beam out of your own eye before you sorry about the mote in your brother and sister’s eyes. Rob Bell is right about one thing: Love really does win. Maybe unpacking the ramifications of that principle might keep us busy for a long time.

The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by all, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom we hide (our) faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not."
         --Isaiah 53. 2-3

The Sixth station of the cross is the only stopping point not mentioned in Scripture. Veronica moved through the crowd and made her way to the staggering Jesus. As he bore the cross she reached out, took her veil in love or maybe just human kindness and wiped the spittle and blood from his face.

Legend had it that when she pulled the veil back from Jesus face the image of his face was embedded in the cloth. From the fourth century on the name Veronica emerges in one of the stations. The legend of the veil bearing Jesus image emerged later in the thirteen century. Some thought that this Veronica was the same woman whom Jesus healed of an issue of blood. The story went that she touched the hem of his garment and she was healed. Her name meant true or truthful.

What does this old story mean to us today? Whether the veil she touched Jesus’ face with bore an image or not is not the point. The truth here is simple. When we come close to Jesus—when we reach out in kindness to anybody anywhere—we ourselves will bear the mark of his love in our lives. This is an old miracle and one of the great wonders of the gospel. Like that long train of pilgrims through the years “inasmuch as we do unto the least of these...we do it unto him.”

I love that story that comes from Jim Wallis of Sojourners. He writes that twenty blocks from the White House is the Sojourners Neighborhood Center. Every Friday morning they open their doors and about 300 families come in seeking food. Just before the doors open the volunteers, mostly poor themselves join hands in prayer. One old African-American woman prayed one morning. “Thank you, Lord, for waking me up this morning. Thank you that the walls of my room were not the walls of my grave, and my bed was not my coolin’ board. Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this line today, so help us to treat you well.” I wonder if her name just might have been Veronica.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Helpin' Ain't Easy

"Let us keep this truth before us.
You say have no faith?
Love--and faith will come.
You say you are sad?
Love--and joy will come.
You say you are alone?
Love--and you will break our of solitude.
You say you are in hell?
Love--and you will find yourself in heaven.
Heaven is love."
   --Carlo Carretto

Burden bearing. It’s a noble profession. Lately we’ve become acquainted with burden bearing up close and personal. My wife’s Aunt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over a year ago. Slowly she was drifting away from us and we had to do something. First we tried home health care hoping she could stay at home. After several months the Doctor said it was time to move her. So we found a facility close to us and not long after she moved in she tried to walk away and so we had to move her again. In the second facility she did get out the door and they found her on a busy highway trying to get home. So—we had to find yet another place and the third facility was fine until she began to fall and fall and fall. First she broke her arm. Then she broke her hip and landed into a fourth facility for physical therapy. She has gone downhill fast. But she still knows us and brightens up when we come into her room. She is much better but still cannot walk and continues to try.

What does this has to do with burden bearing? Everything. Beginning with home health care and moving through all four facilities—we have been amazed at the genuine love and quality of care that she has experienced from those that worked there. When she was still at home her caretaker cooked her favorite meals, checked on her after she had gone home at night and cared for her as if she was a member of her family. After we moved her to our town this woman still called long-distance to find out how she was doing. She and others went far beyond the call of duty.

In all four facilities—most of those that worked there reached out and did all they could to help. They knew her name and they would spend time talking to her. She loved them and they loved her. These folk have a hard job. It’s messy never-a-break-business. Some in a pinch even work twelve-hour shifts. Most are African-American. Most of them make little money. Some are divorced and many bring with them their own personal problems. Aging parents, never enough money—worries about foreclosures and children. Yet—some drive through the early morning hours and spend all days bearing someone else’s burden. Often it is a thankless task. Tending to difficult patients, dealing with irate family members, washing old uncooperative bodies.  They change diapers continually and have to be alert at all times. Some feed the patients. Others sit down and listen to some old woman or man spin dreams which may or may not be true. It is hard business when a little old lady sits by the door day after day with her suitcase thinking her son will come and take her home. Some curse and refuse to let black folks into their rooms. Others simply sit in the television room staring blankly at the screen.

I don’t know how they do it, these burden bearers. I do know that Jesus said on more than one occasion: “As you do it unto the least of these—you do it unto me...” And I really think moving amid the messes and spills these helpers really are bearing somebody’s burden whether they know it or not. And these, great unappreciated heroes—really are the stuff of the kingdom of God

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Fifth Station: Simon--The Burden Bearer

"As they led him away,
they laid hold of one Simon
   the Cyrenean
who was coming in fron the fields,
They put the crossbeam on Simon's
for him to carry along behind Jesus."
    --Luke 23.36

+           +           +          +

"To lend each other a hand when we are falling,
perhaps that's the only thing that matters in the end."
                      --Frederick Buechner

They remembered the story all their lives. It was hard to pinpoint when their father had first told it. But Rufus and Alexander had heard it so often they could tell it to you even in their dreams. How did it begin? They would laugh and say, “Always the same. Always the same.”

Simon, their father had said it was springtime. Passover was near. All his life he had longed to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. For years he had saved—but always there was a roadblock. One year it was sickness, another year the crops had failed. Always something. But one day his wish finally came true. He found Jerusalem different than he imagined. People everywhere—streets crowded. And Rome—with their soldiers and flags you could tell that was an occupied country.

He saw a crowd that had gathered and was curious. Someone was about to be crucified. He edged closer to the street. And he saw this man, bloody and beaten, slowly carrying the crossbeam to his execution. Soldiers behind him nudged him with their swords. People in the streets jeered at him. Some spat on him. One soldier waved a banner that read: “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.” This man was old not old. On his head there was a crown and it looked like thorns. The blood dripped from his brow, streaked his face like tears.

The man stumbled and fell down and the weight of the crossbeam pinned him to the road. He couldn’t get up. And a Roman soldier came over and kicked him—but did not move. This same soldier looked at Simon, motioned him to come, and then dragged him out into the street. “You bear his cross—someone has to take it to the hill.” Simon was scared and furious. But he obeyed orders. Who wouldn’t?

He lifted the heavy beam off the bleeding man and shifted until it was on his own back. And he started the march, which would finally lead him up the hill. He told his boys that the soldiers took the cross placed it on the ground and stretched the man’s arms out on the beam. They nailed his hands first...and then his feet. It was horrible.

Their father told him he stayed all day long. It rained and thundered-and the lightning—he had never seen anything like it. Later, on the boat back home, he felt different. It was hard to pin down. He told Rufus and Alexander about other travels. The mountains he had climbed. The deserts he had seen. The robbers that scared him so. He told them of the money he had made and how life had been good. He had loved a woman—their mother—and she had loved him back. He told them how proud he was of them, his sons and the grandchildren they had given him.

But of all the things he had ever done he said that Passover in Jerusalem changed his life forever. Against his will, they had thrust Jesus’ cross on his shoulders and made him carry it all the way. Both sons knew the story by heart. Their father always ended it by saying: to do something hard and sometimes embarrassing—stretching the best you are--for someone else, this is the best thing I ever did. Shouldering his heavy load, bearing Jesus’cross had made it all different.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I Am Proud of my Church

"Let the little children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
                         --Luke 18:16

Every once in a while I stumble on to something that makes me proud to be a Christian and a member of the church. It happened last Sunday. In the middle of the service we had a Parent- Child Dedication Service. But this part of the service was unusual because down the aisle there strode two women and their new baby. Trailing behind them were the parents of one of the women. Nobody left the church furious. Nobody acted like this was a more special dedication than any other baby. It was just another Sunday when we lifted up before the Lord this new little girl and prayed for her parents and rejoiced on this new birth.

It was a moving moment for me. I remember when they first came to church well over a year before. They sat close to the back. They had felt uncomfortable in a number of churches—and so they were a little skittish. But members welcomed them after the service and invited them back. The next Sunday they sat a little closer than they had the Sunday before. Later they told me how grateful they were that they had found a church that would accept them. No big deal like “Aren’t we the super-Christians that welcome everybody!” No. They felt like we had opened our arms and taken them in. It wasn’t long before they left their safe pew and walked down the aisle and joined the church. The congregation rejoiced in our new members. Months later we found that one of the women were pregnant. So they had always wanted a baby—and so she was artificially inseminated. The couple was so happy and our church gave them a shower.

And so when the little girl was born we did what we always do when couples bring new life into the world. We welcomed them to the front of the church, dedicated the baby and pledged to stand by the parents and rejoiced together.

Weeks before our inner city church celebrated the hundredth anniversary of being in our beautiful old sanctuary. In the sixties Deacons stood at the front doors of the church and turned away those of the wrong color. But that was then. Since that time, the doors were slowly opened to everybody—everybody. And looking around on Sundays you see homeless folk and the well heeled and gays and singles and young married couples and a multitude of little children. Our mission statement says: “Building an inclusive Community of grace.” And we are trying to do just that.

Oh, we have our problems like any other church. We are far from perfect. But I am glad to be part of a church that can change its history. A church that can courageously stick its head out in a deep-South town. A church that can take that part of the Gospel seriously that says: “Whosoever will may come.” Last Sunday, especially I was glad to be a member of the church.

(This meditation is dedicated to Georgia Elizabeth Loague Long and her proud parents: Mary Long and T.J. Loague.)

The 4th Station--Jesus Meets his Mother

"Did Mary make a birthday cake
For Christ when he was small,
And think the while she frosted it,
How quickly boys grow tall?

Oh sometimes years are very long,
And sometimes years run fast,
And when the Christ had put away
Small, earthly things at last,

And died upon a wooden cross
One afternoon in spring,
Did Mary find the little toy,
And sit...remembering?
-Helen Welshimer, "The Birthday"

Today we come to pause before the fourth station of the cross. There are only two stations when Jesus stopped and addressed someone. In this fourth station Jesus confronted his mother. In his pain he said nothing. But from the Cross at the top of the hill he would look down and see his still weeping mother. It must have broken his heart—but he spoke to her: “Woman, behold your son.” And then to John, “Behold your mother.” There at the end he gave Mary to John and John to Mary.

Why did the church add this fourth station? In a sexist world where women counted for little—the church was far ahead of its time. Further ahead than it knew. For the Gospel and the whole of the Bible is peppered with Sarah’s and Ruth’s and Naomi’s and Elizabeth’s and Anna's and Mary’s and Martha’s and, as Mark put it “the other women.” Perhaps he said this because there were too many to name.

I wonder if this isn’t a word to some old bag lady digging through a garbage can looking for food or treasures. I wonder if it isn’t a word to some single mother of three who has been up since five at McDonald’s serving coffee and sausage biscuits? And I wonder if this is not a word for all those scared and frightened women who must decide if they go to the abortion clinic or not. Could these words address all those who burkas and are confined to houses unless some man says otherwise. And would this station take in the battered and abused women who live always in quiet desperation. Not to speak of all those mothers who have lost sons and daughters in this war that seems to have no end.

Dorothy Sayers imagines the fourth station this way: In her imagination he has Mary speaking to Jesus:

“My child. When he was small, I washed and fed him; I dressed him in his little garments and combed the rings of his hair. When he cried, I comforted him; when he was hurt, I kissed away the pain; and when the darkness fell, I sang him to sleep. Now he goes faint and fasting n the dust, and his hair is tangled with thorns. They will strip him naked to the sun and hammer the nails into his living flesh, and the great darkness will cover him. And there is nothing I can do. Nothing at all. This is the worst thing; to conceive beauty in your heart and bring it forth into the world, and then to strand by helpless and watch it suffer...”

And so maybe our task is to console all those who need consolation in our time. Maybe our task is to make sure that women are safe and have the same opportunities as men. We still have a long way to go. Maybe it means to stand up and say: “No more!” wherever women know injustice and maltreatment.

Ponder the mystery of the fourth station. Jesus confronts his mother. It is a word of compassion and reconciliation. It is to be a gracious word for a most ungracious time. It means that they really will know who we are and what we do if we really, really love one another.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Third Station--Jesus Falls

"Even bein' God ain't no bed o' roses."
 --Marc Connelly, The Green Pastures

In the Stations of the Cross—Jesus falls three times. The crossbeam was too heavy. Jesus was exhausted from lack of sleep, from the beatings that went on and on. In some stations of the cross there are as many as seven times where Jesus falls. The only scripture reference to any fall in the Passion story is the occasion when Simon of Cyrene came forward and lifted the cross from Jesus’ back.

We know one thing here. Jesus stumbled under his heavy load. Maybe the church was trying to teach the Gnostics a lesson. They always said that our Lord appeared to be a real person. More like a heavenly ghost. But God, they said could never, ever be a human being like us. But the church knew better. Ireneus in his book, Against Heresies would write it bold letters: What he appeared to be, he was. He was what he seemed to be.

And so once again we deal with the hard side of Jesus’ humanity and our own. In the play, Green Pastures one character says, “Even bein’ God ain’t no bed o’ roses.” He really did become like us. And if this be true—he was confined to the limits that we know all too well. He just could not go another step. He stumbled under the load.

And I think the church put the several falls of Jesus in the Stations more than once to help us remember our limits.  Jesus fell, too. Who likes limits? Who likes confinement and strictures? As we get older most of us realize, like Nicodemus that we all run out of time. But in our own journey sometimes the load of our lives gets too heavy.

If you ever read John Updike’s splendid series, The Rabbit Stories you will remember how human Harry Angstrom really was. His nickname was Rabbit. In four books Updike told the story of Harry (Rabbit) from a young man all the way through his life until we come to the final volume which the author calls, Rabbit at Rest. In this last story Harry is in his mid-fifties. He is rich and semi retired after a serious heart attack. He moved to Florida and spent six months out of the year. He returned to the northeast the other six months to see how his son was running the Toyota business he left to him.

His first act on returning home after being gone six months was to look around at all the things that he had almost forgotten. It was always a journey down memory lane. He drove by the place he was born, the house he had grown up in. He went by his grade school and then the high school where he was once a basketball star. He passed the church where he and Janice were married and the house where their first born died. Then he drove down a street lined with Bradford pear trees in full bloom. He stopped the car and marveled at the beauty and whiteness of those tall trees. He did something he hardly ever did. He just sat there looking. Looking. As he sat there tears trickled down this hard-nosed businessman’s face. He started the engine and went home. When he got there he told Janice about the trees. “They must have planted those trees after we left. I don’t remember those trees being there.” And his wife said, ‘Oh, Harry it’s been in all the papers. They’ve been working on that project for ten years.” He said, “I never saw anything like it. It just broke me up.” And she said, “You’ve seen. It’s just that now, now you see things differently.” He knew and she knew that they were talking about how that serious heart attack had altered the lenses through which he looked at life.

And we stumble under our own heavy loads sometimes life looks different. Theologian Leonardo Boff says that the true grandeur is to accept the frailty and the humanity of the limits placed on us without resentment. For dealing with our own limits is one of the hardest tasks we face.

So the church kept the stories of Jesus falling. It reminded them of his humanity that was so much like ours. I believe as pilgrims would move in their own churches to this third station, many looked up and saw in that heavy load their own load and in Christ's fall their own fall. It isn’t the end of the journey—but heavy loads and stumbling were part of Jesus' journey and the roads we travel too.
(Michael Podesta, Master Calligrapher did a  beautiful rendering of this quote. I liked it so much that I did my own calligraphy piece. I did this at a very hard time in my life. It hangs on my wall because I believe the words are so true.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

He Bore the Cross--2nd Station of the Cross

"Jesus was led away,
and carrying the cross by himself,
went out to what is called the Place 
   of the Skull."
     --John 19.17

We come today to the second station of the cross. We all know the word, station. It is a place to pause on a journey. It is a moment when we can rest a spell. Sometimes a station is a place to ask directions or to buy a ticket or simply to make sure you are in the right spot. The Stations of the Cross have provided pilgrims through the years with a chance to ponder the mystery of the greatest story ever told.

In the first station—Jesus stood before Pilate. He had been scourged which was a terrible punishment. Pilate commanded the soldiers to drag the beaten Jesus so the crowd could see him. Pilate said: “Behold the man.” And listening to those words was the first station for a pilgrim.

So Jesus’ case was heard and sentence was pronounced at that time: “You will go to the cross.” At that moment the soldiers came again with the top of the cross—not the whole cross—just the crossbeam. They placed the heavy beam on Jesus’ shoulders. And the long, hard walk began. Before him an officer would walk with a placard on which was written the charges for the crime for which he was to die. And the church has called this second station: He bore the cross.”

Isaiah had said, years before, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. And with his stripes we are healed.”

H. Wheeler Robinson understood Isaiah’s word when he told story that one day he stopped into a cathedral to hear the choir rehearsing that gorgeous twenty-third portion of the Mass. “Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon me.” Robinson said that standing behind him in the shadows was a man who stood looking agitated and very distraught. And as the choir sang, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon me,” the man began to whisper and moan louder and louder, “Oh God, Oh God if he only could. If only he could!” And with that the man ran out of the church and Robinson never saw him again.

The second station says that he bore our cross. He really did take the sins of the world upon his shoulders. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Carlyle Marney used to say that the dream has always been the same since time began. We carved our hopes on walls; we painted our longings with crude brushes in caves. We whispered it again and again. The dream never changed: that somehow, somewhere, sometime, one would come to take our sins away. Someone would come who would be good enough and great enough and strong enough and clean enough to free us from all the things that cripple us and chain us down. The longing has always been the same: For someone who can pardon and forgive and release and help us to put all that awful stuff behind us and begin again.

So this is the second station. He bore our sins. And in that journey which begins again this Lenten season—we remember the word Savior. And we know the word is for us. Thanks be to God.

"Christ nailed up might be more
than a symbol of all pain.
He might in very truth
contain all pain.
And a man standing
on a hilltop
with his arms outstretched,
a symbol of a symbol,
he too might be a reservoir
of all the pain that ever was."
--John Steinbeck

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Newt--for What?

Ash Wednesday was a strange evening. Turning on the television I learned that Newt Gingrich had confessed on a Christian Broadcasting station that he had been guilty of marital indiscretions. Well and good. I thought everybody ought to confess during this season of Lent. David’s Psalm is a model for us all. Gingrich told David Brody in a taped interview at the Faith and Freedom Coalition: He went on to say: “And what “There is no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too had and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” He went on to add: “ I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness. I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people deep down in their hearts hope there’s a forgiving God. Somebody once said that when we’re young, we seek justice, but as we get older, we seek mercy. There’s something to that, I think.”

Bill Clinton could have learned something from Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich must have had a huge boulder in his arms when he said after Clinton’s indiscretions, “Never will I speak in public again without mentioning Clinton’s affair.” What we now know is that as he was adjusting his Pharisaic robes around him he was married to his second wife and was having an affair with a staff member that would become wife no. 3. Just think if Clinton had divorced Hillary and married Monica she might be Secretary of State and Hillary could be sitting at home working on her memoirs. Maybe if Clinton had said that because of Gingrich shutting down the government in his despair he jus could not resist Monica’s charms. President Clinton might have saved himself from impeachment.

Mr. Gingrich has a perfect right to run for President. But underneath that Brooks Brothers suit I think I saw the tail of a wolf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, that there is a cheap grace and an authentic grace. Cheap grace costs little or nothing. I wonder if leaving wife No. 1 for no. 2 and leaving wife no. 2 for wife number 3 qualifies as a grace that asks nothing and costs nothing. Hmmm. I think I know who will not get my vote for President.

(You might want to read Gail Collins' article on Newt Gingrich's recent statements from a woman's point of view.)

(Another great response is by the wise Church historian, Martin Marty, Sightings, Newt Gingrich's Comic Repentance, 3/14/2011.)

Behold the Man--Station I of the Cross

(The Church has called the Stations many different things through the years. Cia Crucis, Via Dolorosa, The Way of the Cross, Stations of the Cross. These stations are 14 in number. All the way through Lent we will stop beside one of these Stations and ponder the mystery.)

(See Matthew 27.15-26; Mark 15.6-15; Luke 23. 17-25; John 18.38-40, 19.4-16)

If you ever saw the film,” The Passion of Christ” you will remember the most wrenching parts of that movie were the terrible scenes of Jesus being beaten. I had to close my eyes at the brutality and the suffering. But afterwards, still reeling from his pain and abuse Jesus was dragged before Pilate the Roman Governor. He soldiers had mockingly placed a crown of thorns on his head, they dressed him in a purple robe filled with holes and smeared with dirt. The soldiers kept hissing, “Hail, King of the Jews.” They spat on him and great blobs of spittle ran down his face onto his robe. Then they dragged him back before Pilate. It must have been a terrible scene for this Governor who did like messes. Pilate. He knew that gentle man had done little or no wrong. Surely he did not deserve this. Jesus stood there and Pilate turned to the crowd and said, “Behold the man.”

The crowd went wild as bloodthirsty crowds do. Pilate told them eh found no fault in Jesus. But the crowd roared: “Crucify him! Crucify him.” And Pilate, politician that he was, turned to the crowd and said, "Then take him and crucify him. For there is no case against him.”

But before they dragged him away Pilate was not quite finished. “Where are you from?,” he asked. “ Do you know the power I have to set you free or sentence you to death? “ Jesus answered. Pilate thought it was arrogant. “You have no power over me unless God gives.” With that Pilate threw up his hands. He had tried to release this Galilean but this bleeding man gave him no recourse. What else could he do but give him over to the bloodthirsty crowd?

I keep coming back to those words of Pilate. “ Behold, the man.” And these words are still with us. Sometimes in church we talk so much about Jesus that he seems ten feet tall and like Abraham Lincoln far away. But the first Station puts Jesus in perspective. We are to look and behold the man.

Joseph Conrad begins his book, Lord Jim like this: “My Jim is not a type of wide commonness. But I can safely assure my readers that he is not the product of coldly perverted thinking. He’s not a figure of Northern mists either. One sunny morning in the commonplace surroundings of an Eastern roadstead, I saw his form pass by—appealing—significant—under a cloud—perfectly silent. Which is as it should be. It was for me, with all the sympathy of which I was capable, to seek fit words for his meaning. He was ‘one of us.’”

The one standing before Pilate was one of us. Whoever has felt pain or injustice or stood before a judge or known betrayal or despair so deep and dark that one wonders if you can go on—behold the man. Truly he was one of us. Ponder the mystery the word really did take flesh in all its beauty but more: all its horror of cancer and Alzheimer’s and mental illness and grief ad whatever hurts that seem to be unending. Conrad was right. He was one of us.

“At de feet o’ Jesus
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordly, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At de feet o’ Jesus,
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma precious Jesus,
Please reach at yo’ hand.”
--Langston Hughes

Friday, March 11, 2011

Stations--A Lenten Journey

For two thousand years Christians have pondered the old story. One came from heaven to earth. Born like us. Grew up like us. Struggled like us. And even died like we all finally will. And that last week of Jesus’ life became the focus of so much of what Christians through the ages have believed. This would be the story that they would retell and sing and preach and dream and act out again and again. All four gospels testify that to the saga where Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem for the last time. They called it The Way: Via Dolorosa: the way of sorrows. And through that winding way believers would discover a redemption for themselves and for the whole world.

They sang it and preached it and carved it and sculpted it. “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” That story of the last week in Jesus’ life would weave its way into the heart of all they did. Early pilgrims would make their way to those special places where they had been told it all began. In time, they called it the Holy Land.
But many could not get to the Holy Land. Travel was difficult or impossible. Those returning would tell the story of what they had seen and felt in those special holy places. By the 15th century they  named these places The Way of the Cross. These were stations, stopping places where believers would follow the footsteps of Jesus to the cross.

Churches began to bring these holy places to their own parishes and cemeteries and parks. In Bologna, there were five stops in the church that pilgrims could make. In Antwept there were seven. Sometimes there were as many as twenty or thirty. William Wey, an Englishman called these special shrines stations. Go into any Catholic church in the world today and you will find the stations—where pilgrims are still drawn.

By 1857 the church had pared down the list of stations to 14. Sometimes a fifteenth station is added to represent the Resurrection. But, especially during Holy Week Christians have gathered and moved from station to station pondering the mystery of Christ’s sufferings.

And so, during this Lenten season I am going to begin my own journey with the Stations of the Cross—and I ask you to join me. I first was captured by the stations in the garden outside the Thomas Aquinas Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. They have erected the fourteen different stations outside, under the trees, by some artist. I do not know the artist's name but I do know if you wander down Stockton Street in Princeton go through the entrance circling their building you will find the stations. I have taken pictures of these stations. These will form the focus of our meditations during this Lenten season. Tomorrow we begin our journey at the first station.

(This moving sculptured piece is found on the grounds of Trinity Episcopal Church on Mercer Street Street in Princeton, New Jersey. I have been unable to find the artist's name.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fences--A Sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent

How do you feel about limits? I think they are ridiculous. Last week at my first day at the Beach my ankle swelled up. No reason. Just swelled up—and painful. I hardly slept a wink that night—the pain would not go away. And I could hardly walk on that foot. My wife took me to one of these walk-in doctor places. When they saw me hobbling they brought out a wheel chair. This was getting more ridiculous. The Doctor wasn’t sure what had happened. After an x-ray he decided I did not have a break. He said maybe it was gout (which I had never had) or maybe arthritis (which I have never had) that inflamed my ankle. He sent me home with prescriptions and crutches. Crutches! I had never had these either. For someone who has barely been sick and never a patient in a hospital—this was a whole new chapter. I crawled up the steps to the condo on my rear end. I was not about to take the stairs with crutches—inside I plopped down on the couch. I never got to the beach—it was two blocks away and I never even saw the Gulf. I got home, saw the Doctor—and he confirmed the first Doctor’s analysis. I still don’t know what had happened to my ankle—but it is much better and I am mending.

But the limits this pain placed on me made me furious. I wonder if Adam and Eve didn’t feel the same way in our Genesis story for the first Sunday in Lent. God placed them in this beautiful garden. The place was wonderful and lush and they were the caretakers. And then came the rub: “And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” They learned the hard way that life has limits. There was a great big: “Thou shalt not...” nailed to a tree. Which, I assume made it more tempting than ever. There are some lessons for us to learn here.


First, I guess they had to realize that they were creatures. They were made by God—but there were limits to their lives. Creatures get sick, their backs hurt. Adam and Eve must have had falling outs like the rest of us. If they ate from the forbidden tree they would have to pay the consequences.

Carlyle Marney used to say there is a wall around our gardens. We can’t go but so far. Robert Frost understood this when he wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall...” And later in that same poem he would add: “Something that wants it down...”So we all-too-human creatures live in a world of rules and stop signs and red lights and commandments.


Sometimes these limits are personal. You wake up one day and realize you can't eat everything you want. You can’t smoke two packs a day without paying for it. And at work you really cannot burn the candle at both ends.

Sam Keen testifies to this hard truth. He was the author of several books and was a wise man. But in mid-life it all came tumbling down. This is what he writes in his book, Beginnings Without End.

“One rainy morning I awoke alone in an apartment in San Francisco with the realization that my marriage was finished, my wife had remarried, my children were living far away, my lover had departed and my academic career had been abandoned. My emotional capital seemed exhausted. My past looked infinitely richer than a future I might create. Depression lurked and easily invaded any empty moment. I had either to surrender to despair or mourn the death of my old life and find some way to begin again...

“I cry with the knowledge that I had added to the lump of pain that burdens the earth. I have injured my children. I live with loss but I am not longer haunted by illusions nor ruled by the authority of an absent god. By infidelity I learned that vows may be sweet bounds that tie us to the earth. Through exile I learned that I cannot live life without a home. By departing from the way pointed by my parents I learned how many of their values I cherish. I am no longer innocent. In my new and awesome world I build walls strong enough to shield me from terror of isolation I cannot live alone; thus, there are limits.” None of us can ignore the walls around our gardens.

Anyone who has ever been married realizes the limits in this relationship. I remember a marriage counselor who said that when couples get married they are given a plot of land. There aren’t many instructions. But they are given this land. After the wedding and the reception and the honeymoon they came back to their little plot. And if they pulled up two deck chairs and just sat there—nothing would change—ever. The marriage would never grow. They would always be as they were at that moment. But if they went to the garage and got the shovels, rakes and hoes and began to dig and compost and plant and day that little plot would be a wonder to behold. But it will never happen in a day or a year. It takes a lifetime of work, energy, love and commitment.


Limits also speak to this Garden we call a world. We’ve all been given this plot and if the world is to be a better place we will have to reach out, use our rakes and hoes and commitment and love here, too. I have a hard time with these folk that sneer at the green movement. The care of he earth is at the heart of this Genesis passage and runs like a thread through the Bible. This oil crisis in the Gulf which is fading too fast from our memory, is simply a symbol that we are more interested in greed than we are in our habitat. I wonder what we have learned from this enormous tragedy that will be with us for years and years to come.


Theologically we are all responsible. If the religious institutions in our country create health and well being we will have to work harder and it will mean we still have swim against the tides of so much in culture. We must do something about this mounting deficit that is killing America. But if we opt for only cutting those things that hurt the poor, the sick, the children and so many others—we will have hurt our garden for years and years to come. Will we speak for the voiceless or simply be concerned with our own kind?

In 1987 a play opened on Broadway that drew large audiences. It won the Pulitzer Prize that year and a number of other awards. The play was called Fences. It was the story of a black family living in Pittsburgh and began in 1957 between the Korean and Viet Nam Wars. The drama ended its story in 1965. A new world of opportunity for black folk was just beginning to open up. Part of the reason I think the play was so powerful was that it reminded a great many of us about the fences of our own lives. Like those black folk in the play in the fifties and we are we still trying to put fences around folk that are African-American, but a great many others as well: Muslims, Immigrants and anyone else who is unlike us. One critic speaking of the play said, “It was a rich portrait of a man who scaled down his dreams to fit inside his run-down yard.” This is the warning of our Genesis story: we can all settle for too little.

I’ve put my crutches up.They are consigned to the attic where I hope they will stay. And yet I know that there still is a wall around my garden. I will not live forever. There is less ahead than there was back there. We can chafe against the strictures of our lives and our time and we can make something special and enduring in this fenced-in place where we live. And I think it means that on this First Sunday of our Lenten journey we all still have some hard work to do. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Waiting in Line--A Poem for Ash Wednesday

I stand in a long and winding line.
In some ways I’ve been standing here
  all my life
waiting, waiting my turn.
I remember my terror waiting in line
to get that shot in school.
I remember waiting in line with all the
other scouts hoping to be picked to play.
I remember that line when, in cap
  and gown, I reached out for my diploma.
There have been so many lines—waiting to
  get baptized, to get my driver’s license,
  to get married—to wait with all
  the other men for the Doctor to come
  and say: “It’s a girl...”
All my life, it seems I have been waiting
  in some line.
Sometimes scared, sometimes bored—
  sometimes excited.

And today I stand waiting in yet another line.
Waiting for what?
I do not rightly know.
To have someone mark my forehead
  with a smudge.
To hear those painful words: “Dust thou art
  and to dust you shall return.”
To remember moments ago we penitents prayed
  together: “Have mercy upon me O God...”
To move away marked by a smudged cross—
That wherever I go and whatever I do—
I will remember that I will be
  or carried
  or loved
  or just forgiven.
And so, I stand in this long line waiting.
                             --Roger Lovette