Someone said that the greatest casualty in a time of war is the truth. It isn't only when we're calling out the artillery. Looks like every Presidential campaign politicians play fast and loose with the facts. This is nothing new. What is new is that we have this wonderful organization called FactCheck which holds all those in public life accountable for the statements they make. I' ve been receiving an email from this organization for quite a while. They take on everybody; Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians.
FactCheck.org stated purpose is to try to correct misstatements, exaggerations and sometimes downright lies by politicians and other public figures. This is a project that comes from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. I get an email weekly about the misstating of facts from all sides. They try to set the record straight. Not an easy order in our time. This last email has listed some of the half-truths that Michelle Bachmann has been saying of late. FactCheck point by point takes her statements in context and then presents the facts of the matter. This is no right/wing or left/wing bashing organization. I've read as many of their articles about the not-quite-true-statements by those in office regardless of political stripe. This is refreshing in a time when people think the Republicans are right...or the Democrats are always right.
The Southern writer Flannery O'Connor once said: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you off." Seems to me we desperately need some odd people at every level today if we are to be a healthier society. I recommend FactCheck to anyone who wants to cut through some of the bramble we face everyday.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
On this Gay Pride Day memories swirl. As a minister I have said goodbye to a great many gay men through the years. My own education began as the AIDS epidemic was raging. One of my church members, a Pastoral Counselor called me one day. “ I have been talking to a woman whose son has AIDS. He lives in California and is moving to Birmingham because he is so sick. His mother feels that her church wouldn’t accept him. She is looking for a church that would treat him just like everyone else. Do you think our church could do that?” I remember whispering: “I would hope so.” I asked my Counselor-friend to have the mother to call me and we would talk. She called, told me their story and wanted to know if they would be welcomed in our congregation. I told her I thought they would.
So she came and joined. Weeks later her son, Kevin moved into her house so she could take care of him. He visited church one Sunday and it was very clear that he was sick. I wondered how people would respond. Well, they rose to the occasion. They welcomed him as they had his mother. A Sunday school class took him in and he became a part of their class.
He lived less than a year. Slowly he began to slip away. The church surrounded this family. We prayed for them, took food, sat with Kevin so his mother could take a break. When he was so very sick his Sunday school class visited around his bedside on a Sunday morning. They brought communion with them—little tiny wafers and a vial of wine. Kevin had eaten very little those last days. But he asked for Communion and the class gathered around his bed and they took the Lord’s Supper. It was the last food he ever had by mouth. A day or two later he slipped away.
At his funeral our church was there in full force. Little blue-haired ladies surrounded the mother and wiped away their tears. There were a lot of gay folk that attended that service. They whispered to one another: “Is this a Baptist church? It couldn’t be.” Weeks later some of those same people appeared on a Sunday morning. They kept coming back. And one by one they joined our congregation.
This was a sea change for our little church. Some began to mutter, “Is this going to become a gay church?” One family walked into my office, stuck their fingers in my face and said, “What are you going to do about these homos?” I told them I was going to treat everyone the same and we would turn no one away. Our church pulled out of another Baptist church years before because that church refused to receive black people into their membership. So I told this irate family, “If we don’t keep these doors open for everyone—we will be dead in five years. A church of open doors is who we are.” We lost a few members at this hard time—yet the church kept welcoming all that came.
One of our Choir members told about the promise he had made to his dying mother. He told her he would sing, “Amazing Grace” at her funeral. When she died the woman’s pastor told this son because he was gay he could not sing at that funeral in that church. So they moved the service from the church to a funeral home and the young man kept his promise to his mother. I have heard heart-breaking story after heart-breaking story again and again.
Our church formed Care teams and took meals on wheels to people with AIDS. We welcome a little black baby with AIDS into our nursery. Slowly the church began to see that our gay members were just like everyone else. Several congregants served on boards that dealt with gay concerns. That was in the mid-eighties and if you were to visit that church today you would find a great many gay folk in a multitude of leadership positions. It did not become a gay church. It was just a Church—a church with enough courage to open it’s arms to everyone. People there do not now think in terms of who is straight and who is gay. They are simply people who are struggling to find their way and help each other.
And so, on this day I remember Kevin and his mother Carole. They forced us to deal with an issue that was extremely volatile at that time. They left indelible fingerprints on that congregation. And so today as people march across this country for gay rights—I remember Kevin and the battle he waged and how he helped us open our doors a little wider.
We still have a long way to go. Much of the church still cannot face this issue of homosexuality. Yet step-by-step we are getting there. One day I hope I see a time when everyone who steps into a church and sits down will feel safe and welcomed. Kevin helped teach me and our church this lesson. And so on Gay Pride Sunday I remember.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Why did this artist display her father’s last mementoes for all to see? I think maybe she was trying to discover something about the man she called Father or Papa or Daddy. Perhaps she wanted those who saw this display to remember that this man, her father had lived and worked and dreamed. Perhaps this was her way of paying tribute to her father and dealing with her loss.
So on this Father’s Day it isn’t really about cologne or shirts or golf balls. This day is not just a time for families to gather. This day is a rare moment of spreading out our good and bad memories of the man we called Father. Perhaps it is a day of touching an old grief—or letting go of something hard at the center of our hearts. Maybe it is a day for honoring the man, for better or worse, who gave us life.
At the ball games on TV nobody ever holds up a “Hi Dad” sign. Some fan always waves to the TV camera: “Hi Mom!” But scattered across our lives are tiny bits and pieces, dreams and memories of the man we call father. And this is a day for remembering.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I'm gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands...
--Langston Hughes, 'Daybreak in Alabama"
Not far down the street from where I live is a Hispanic family that moved in several years ago. If you were to drive by their house you would see one of the most attractive houses and lawns in the neighborhood. There is a Japanese maple in the front yard. There are daisies and other flowers blooming. The father and mother both work hard. Both have their own businesses. They are a close-knit family. Celebrating a birthday of one of their children weeks ago they had constructed this huge blow-up party vehicle in the front yard. Children laughing and playing filled the yard. This family goes to Church every weekend and is a credit to the community. They are full citizens of our state...yet they are afraid. Not because they are illegal—which they are not. But because of the recent Alabama Immigration law which the Governor signed recently. The ugly bill is called H.B. 56.
If I were a betting man I would say that if this bill goes into law the father or mother will be stopped by the police and asked for their papers some time in the following months. Their children’s teachers will wonder next year about the status of Hispanic children. Someone in a grocery store line will give them a hard stare. Their family members visiting Alabama will be frightened of this state and its policies. No one will stop me and ask for my papers unless I run some stop sign or have an accident. I am white. A policeman will not even think of stopping me unless I break the law. I am the right color.
The Southern Poverty Law Center along with the ACLU has already filed a lawsuit stating this new bill is cruel and discriminatory. The citizens of this state would be appalled by this legislation. It would turn Alabama school officials into immigration agents. Teachers will have to verify the immigration status of students and report them to the state. This bill allows police to arrest and detain a person when there is “reasonable suspicion” the person is in the country illegally. Landlords will be forced to verify the immigration status of their tenants. All citizens will be prohibited from transporting any undocumented immigrant. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that this piece of legislation is of special concern to mixed status families. Children could be arrested for simply transporting their undocumented parents.
I waded through all 40 pages of this bill yesterday. Chills went up my spine as I read, over and over, the word alien and illegal. It reminded me of those early days in Germany when the Jews were beginning to be discriminated against. We know the rest of that painful story.
The civil rights of Hispanics will be shattered if this law goes into effect. Cecilia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union says: “It blocks the schoolhouse doors to children. It will result in people being turned away when they try to rent a home. It will place burdens on people of color at the voting booth.” She states that by signing this law Governor Bentley has codified official discrimination in the state of Alabama. Our state follows Arizona, Georgia and Utah which all have discriminatory bills directed toward Hispanics. Surely these bills will be struck down by the courts.
America is to be a land of the free and the brave. The great dream of our forefathers went further than they ever envisioned. American was to be a place where all could feel safe. This bill attacks these dreams and basic human rights of a whole segment of our population.
Langston Hughes once wrote a poem called, “Daybreak in Alabama.” Were he writing today perhaps he would entitle the poem: “Sunset in Alabama.” We cannot allow my Hispanic neghbors down the street or any other persons in this state to be discriminated against by official sanction.
(You might want to read the Birmingham News' story of Methodist Will Willimon's response to Alabama's immigration law. Calls it "Meanest in US" Worth reading. )
Saturday, June 11, 2011
And then Pentecost came. And frightened disciples were frightened no more. They left that room to form a church that has lasted for two thousand years. Even the gates of hell itself could not dismantle it--and God knows they have tried and try still. Old betraying Simon would stand and preach with such a power that three thousand would be saved. Like the little boy--we stand on Pentecost Sunday--the birthday of the church--and look out over the vistas and the history and the wonder of it all. And we say: "Something happened here."
As I read the story from Acts 2 week five words bubble out of the text. If we come to terms with these five words we will know something about this very special day.
Ezekiel had written about that valley of dry bones. They knew about sun-bleached bones and desert. It was just out there over the ridge. They lived on the edge of that desert. And the wind would sweep across the desert. And sweep, too, across the sun-bleached bones. The strangest thing happened. Hip bones got connected again to thigh bones. Life came out of death. Ezekiel told Israel that's what is going to happen to you. You thought it was over when the Exile came and gobbled you up. And left nothing but ruins. But God isn't through with you. You see, this wind comes and blows across the deadness and life comes back.
And so at Pentecost he wind stirred in the lives of lifeless disciples. And the Church began that day in the hearts of the most unlikely of people. And they went out of that room to do incredible things--those ordinary men and women--because the wind blew--the spirit of God blew across their efforts.And we come back today to remember it isn't tricks or gimmicks or sermons or programs, really. It isn't diet or exercise or cosmetology. It's that other thing at the heart of it all. The breath of God. Energizing us all.
What happened here? It is not as scary as it seems. Tongues of fire came and rested on each one of them. In the sixth verse each heard in his or her own language. What happened on the Day of Pentecost. Communication happened in that tiny Upper Room.
Will Willimon says that the first gift that the spirit brought was the gift of speech. They all heard in their own language. Funny, in Genesis 11 we have this strange story about those that built this Tower. The Tower of Babel they called it. All the way to heaven, the advertisements said. Why when it is over we will be able to climb all the way up to the pearly gates. But God said No to their overconfidence. He confused their languages. Everybody spoke something different. He tore down the tower and barriers and confusion reigned everywhere. We know about Babel. Different nationalities. Different opinions. Different sections of the country. Liberals and Conservatives. Black and White. Women and Men. Gays and Straight. Illegals and real citizens. North and South. Afghanistan and the United States. Jews and Christians. Tea Party and Planned Parenthood. We know about Babel. It is everywhere even in the church--especially in the church. There is more Babel now than any anytime I have lived.
But at Pentecost nobody was excluded and made to feel stupid. They all heard in their own language. The Spirit came to all. "Parthinians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the part of Libya belonging to Cyrene and visitors from Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs."(Acts 2. 9-11a)
This second word is tongues. Language. This words means it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done. There's a place at the table. There is a name card there. It has your name on it. Come on in. Take your place. Just sit down. He speaks your language. It is the language of your heart.
Prophecy is fulfilled. Old Joel talked about destruction and punishment coming to God's people. And Simon took those words, knowing what had happened in his own life--taken back and loved and cared for. And he saw something else in Joel's words. Maybe something Joel, the old prophet had never seen. Simon started interpreting this old prophecy. And he talked about new life. Pentecost was prophecy fulfilled. And that meant new life was to come where there had only been deadness. And old betraying Simon--turned inside out was the bringer of good tidings. The unlikely happened. Peter openly proclaims life where only death had been. Prophecy is fulfilled in our hearing, that's what this third word means. It means that the Bible is not just a story--but it becomes our story.
Several years ago sitting in my makeshift study at home, I was without a job and a church. I had resigned and I was wounded and I was afraid. The Baptist Seminary had asked me to preach at a Conference and I sat there trying to figure out what to say. And sitting there, beating up on myself, wondering how in the world I ever got myself into that mess , I found my name called. In that story where they fished all night and caught nothing--after Easter. I heard my name called. The voice whispered, "This is your story." "My story?" I muttered. "This is the Holy Bible. How can it be my story." And sitting there, working on a sermon for a houseful of ministers, I heard my name called. I learned more about that fishing expedition in the dark than I ever intended. I learning something about myself--and it wasn't all good. I learned something about limits. That none of us can do it all. I learned something about judgment--to suspend judgment until I know more than I usually know. I learned that the outward props like success and size and growth are not as important as I assumed. But I learned more, there in that room as my name was called by the text. I learned something about failure. It is part of the journey. And I learned something about the demonic--some things I did not want to know. And I learned something about faith--even after fishing all night and catching nothing--God was there. And I was standing. And life would go on and things would be good again. Prophecy is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. We find out that our names are called and this Bible business may just be true after all.
Funny how the Bible is. I have never seen this verse before. It's part of the prophecy. What is going to happen because you serve him and love him. It's found in the 28th verse of Act 2. "You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence."
Let your finger slip on down to the 42nd verse of that same chapter. They were together, reading the Bible, praying, enjoying being together. And then skip on down to 46-47. And here we read they spent time together, "they broke bread, ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people." Do you see this other word. How could I have left it out? It's mentioned three times in one chapter. Healthy relationships. Fun. Laughter. Not taking themselves so seriously. Underneath it all they were the company of the glad. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their worship. It changed the way they looked at everything. And when they met, week after week, they would end the service in the same way, breaking the bread and passing a common cup. Do you know what they called that simply act? Eucharist. Thanksgiving. Thanks be to God. They were grateful and in their gratitude they rejoiced.
I wrote Ray Bradbury some years ago requesting permission to use something he had written. And when he wrote back he sent me a whole collection of his poems. And one of them I have never been able to forget. It's on gladness.
Joy is the grace we say to God
For His gifts given.
It is the leavening of time,
It splits our bones with lightning,
Fills our marrow
With a harrowing of light
And seeds our blood with sun,
And thus we
Put out the night
Put out the night.
Tears make an end of things;
So weep, yes, weep.
But joy says, after that, not done...
No, not by any means. Not done!
Take breath and shout it out!
That laugh, that cry which says: Begin again,
So all's reborn, begun!
Now hear this, Eden's child,
Remember in thy green Earth heaven,
Joy is the grace we say to God.
Something happened here. Let's the Pentecost words speak for themselves. Ponder their meaning. Wind...tongues...prophecy...visions and dreams...and joy and gladness. No wonder the church has been remembering Pentecost all these years. The old bones really do come back together again and life is a possibility once more.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Luke records this whole scene in that first chapter in Acts. After Jesus told them he would be leaving they asked a very practical question, “Lord, when will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the time nor the period that the Father has set.’ And then the Lord added, “But when you receive power…” and this was the promise of Pentecost. And after he said those words he left. He left the earth and moved upward, upward into the heavens—out of sight. And they just stood there, shielding their eyes, looking up, squinting. Wondering. They were sad and more than a little afraid—or both. What would they do now?
And this is Ascension. The disciples standing there looking up as Jesus departs from them. What does this mean and why did the church put it on the calendar and every year read this Scripture and talk about what seems to be an obscure subject?
What happens here is a change of focus. There is a word we’ve been tossing around the last few years: paradigm or paradigm shift. It is a major change in how we look at things. Luke says that after that event on the hillside everything changed. That’s Ascension. Everything changed. I see four changes here.
Heaven to Earth
As Jesus left and made his way into heaven they just stood there gazing. Open-mouthed. And two angels came to them saying: “Why do you stand here looking up?” And the Scriptures say they returned to Jerusalem, which was a Sabbath day’s journey. And in an Upper Room—surrounded by people as ordinary as you and me—the Spirit came. But that story is for another day.Ascension is essentially a change of focus. It’s not heaven we are to turn to. Not pie in the sky by and by. It’s earth. It’s nine to five—24/7. Reality. A Sabbath day’s journey to our destination. Taking a map and looking for a particular room on a particular street.
The angels said: Why do you stand looking up? There is a fear out there today. We worry about terrorists and we worry about our kids and we worry about our money and our safety and just about everything. And it is understandable that we deal with this by turning our gaze from our own problems to escape from the hard facts of reality. No wonder Dancing with the Stars and America Idol are so popular. Who wants to watch the news anyway?
The angels did say you are to look around you. This road. This place. This town. Some upper room. There is a hunger out there today that the Left Behind series has tapped into. But their focus is wrong. Dead wrong. We are hungry for something besides malls and money and competition and rat races. But we find our answers not out there—but here where we live and work and do. The angel said you don’t have to look at the heavens. Look around you. This is where you will find the way. Not heaven but earth.
From God to One Another
In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says of another: “Somewhere along the line he got lost. He was looking for God too high up and too far away.” Acts says if you really want to see God and deal with those spiritual hungers: look around you. Look at the other disciples. Look at your world. This shift is significant: from there to here.
Anne Lamott tells in her book, Traveling Mercies, why she makes her son, Sam go to church. None of his friends go. Why should he be forced to go to church? She started going to the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in San Francisco early in her pregnancy. She wasn’t married and her life was a mess. But she was intrigued by that little church and started going One Sunday they had sharing time at the end of the service and she stood up, took a gulp and confessed that she was pregnant and alone and more than a little scared. She said they began to cheer. Even people raised in Bible-thumping homes in the deep South clapped and clapped. Even the old women whose grown-up boys had been in jails or prisons rejoiced with her. And they reached out their arms and adopted this pregnant woman who had no husband and was not even a member. She kept coming to church. And they brought her clothes and blankets for the new baby. They lugged in casseroles that she could freeze and later use. They kept telling her that this new baby was going to be part of their church family. And then, she said, they began to slip her money. A bent-over woman on Social Security would sidle up to her and stuff her pockets with tens and twenties. Mary Williams, way over eighty, week after week, brought baggies filled with dimes and held together with wire twisties.
She said she brought Sam to church when he was five days old. They stood in line and called him “our baby.” In the weeks that followed they would say: “Bring me my baby—why you trying to hold my baby so long?”
Ann said they kept her going. The people cared and reached out and prayed and loved her and saw her through her hard, hard days. She reports that Mary Williams still gives her bags of dimes even though she is doing much better financially. She says that usually gives them to homeless people she has met. But she says, “Why do I make Sam go to church—none of his friends go? I make him go because somebody brings me dimes.” You see, when she looked around her she saw the face of God. And she found God in the faces, ordinary faces of people she met at church. No wonder she has dedicated two of her three books to: “To the people of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church…and her Pastor…” and “for the kids and youth at St. Andrew who taught me how to be a teacher.”(Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 99-105)
From Us to Them
The angels told those disciples to quit looking up. Look around you. Look beyond you. It is a shift from us to them. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, etc, etc, etc.” We always have to watch the pronouns. These little words are always a tip-off when it comes to matters of faith and unfaith. The great shift here is when the church had to move out beyond itself into a larger world. Jerusalem, Judea, even Samaria and beyond. So the words of Jesus are true after all: We really do save our lives by losing our lives in helping someone else.
A woman came to see Karl Menninger one day who was deeply depressed. She had been to many doctors and had been depressed for years. After her long litany of complaints Dr. Menninger wrote her out a prescription. “Put your clothes on tomorrow. Leave your house. Go across the railroad tracks and find someone in need and reach out to them.”
I have been struck by what we say about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are told that over 7,000 coalition service people from 20 countries have been killed. But we never mention the people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Somewhere between 250,000 and 600,000 in those two countries have lost their lives. There are children there that have never lived in a world without fear and war. Perhaps we need to enlarge our pronouns. What about them?
From the General to the Specific
The angels told those on the hillside to quit looking up. Turn from the heavens, generalities, to the specifics. They asked: Specifics? Yes, specifics. A room in Jerusalem on a side street. Or Jerusalem the city. Or Judea--the country going to hell in a handbasket. Or even cursed Samaria which we could translate to your community or the poorer section in your town or maybe even that Muslim Center a mile from where you live. The gospel is rooted in the soil of the specific. George Herbert understood this when he wrote”:
“And here in dust and dirt, O here,
The lilies of his love appear.”
My first Interim after my retirement was a church in an Alabama town. Main-line denomination. Beautiful building. On one of the main arteries in the town. Surrounded by nice comfortable homes. And my first Sunday there they had their Annual Congregational Meeting at the end of the service. And after lunch I thought they were going to kill each other off. One group wanted to leave the denomination another group was adamant about staying. It was a complicated mess. You could cut the tension with a knife. And here was the brand new interim; never done this before and I could see the church just driving itself off a cliff. One member came by the office one day and handed me a campaign button. It read: “My God, this is a hell of a job!” It was a quote from Warren Harding.
Well that was the kind of a job it was. But the work started. Just a handful coming and they would sit over here and over there and there was a great gulf fixed. What were we going to do? The first thing I told the Board was that they had to turn the temperature down it was 140 degrees in that church. They were about to explode. You have to turn the temperature down, I said, only you can do that. I told them we had to pray for our enemies by name. We had a forgiveness seminar and brought together the warring sides and they began to talk haltingly with one another. And slowly, ever so slowly the church began to come together. They took ownership in the direction of their church. They had to quit pointing fingers and look at some of their own attitudes. Some days I was sure they would self-destruct.