Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Tribute to a Good Friend: Marion Aldridge

(I was asked to be one of the speakers at a dinner honoring a good friend,  Marion Aldridge. Marion is a Baptist minister who has worn many hats. Pastor. Husband. Father. Clemson fan. Writer. Traveler. Lover of life. He will be retiring from his position as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in South Carolina in January. The Cooperative Fellowship began some twenty years ago as an alternative to the fundamentalist turn of the Southern Baptists. Marion has served well in this position for 15 years. My remarks at the dinner are found here.)

What am I gonna say about Marion? There’s a lot I won’t say, I can’t say—and I shouldn’t say. But it’s not hard to talk about somebody that you have appreciated and admired since the late seventies. One of my blog buddies is Philip Jenks. Recently he wrote about The Good Shepherd and sheep. He begins that blog by asking have you ever smelled a sheep? They’re nothing like those pictures we see in the Sunday school rooms—Big sheep can’t be carried because are too big. Jenks goes on to say that being a Good Shepherd is a whole lot harder than it looks.  

And that’s what I want to talk about tonight. Marion Aldridge has been a good shepherd and he has smelled some sheep in his time—and he has walked ever so gently among them and behind a great many of them. But hard work has not stopped this Shepherd. He has come along at a time when Baptists were changing. And he dared to stick his neck out and talk about what was wrong with where we were going and the possibilities for the unknown and uncertain scary future. A lot of church folk didn't want to hear that. So being that kind of a Shepherd was a whole lot harder than it looked. 

But Marion hung in there. He pastored churches. He wrote books and splendid articles. And he didn’t say what people always wanted him to say—but he said what he thought they needed to hear. He never parked his brain outside the church door. Marion has been a Good Shepherd and Sally of all people knows how difficult that was some time. 

It was a great day when he was elected him to lead South Carolina CBF. He has worked tirelessly for a cause that he believes in—and working with churches that often did not understand and sometimes were very troubled. Some days he must have felt that being a Good Shepherd was harder than it looked. 

Weeks ago we had a funeral for a good friend of Marion’s. Clemson’s Mayor—Larry Abernathy. And I was very proud when Marion got up to speak in that very crowded room. I told somebody after his remarks that CBF could be very proud to have someone of Marion’s depth and commitment to be our spokesperson. We have been most fortunate. 

A good Shepherd stays with the sheep—the stubborn sheep and the docile sheep and the mean sheep. So if you want a good definition of commitment-you might look under the words: Marion Aldridge. He has kept at it through thick and thin. He has been a good Shepherd for Jesus Christ.  

George Buttrick, in his eighties, looked back on his years as a minister and said, “Despite it all—I am proud to be a member of this club.” Marion Aldridge has made a lot of us proud to be a member of this club. 

I want to thank him for all he has done for so many of us. I don’t know any better way to say it than using the words George Thurber used of his Editor at The New Yorker, Ross after he retired. This is what he said: “He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums.” Marion learned early that sheep stink pretty bad. But he also knew that sheep need a good leader. But given all of that--he has been a very Good Shepherd even though most do not know that has been harder than it looks. We thank you Marion that nobody has captured your colors and nobody has silenced your drums.

(The photograph above is Marion Aldridge and his beloved wife, Sally.)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Perspective--Rejoicing in the Smallest of Victories

It's hard for any of us today to keep a healthy perspective. We are all about the drown in a sea of negativism. One has only to listen to the political candidates. If you don't vote for me well, the sky really will fall. Then there's the killing of that 17 year old black man by a self-appointed vigilante with a gun. Or maybe that soldier who murdered seventeen adults and children in Afghanistan. We hear about possible Nuclear weapons in North Korea or Iran. And then there is Israel, contemplating a preemptive strike against Iraq--before Iraq hits them. Meanwhile back at home immigrants are still scared about their status. We we worry about what will happen in the Supreme Court rulings. On both sides of my house are beautiful homes that have sat vacant for two years and never been lived in. Across the street is a large weed-filled couple of lots. Three homes were to be built there but the bubble hit and recovery is still a long time coming. No use footnoting our time any further. Everywhere we turn it's hard to see any silver lining.

But I keep trying to remember a story I heard not too long ago. A man was talking to his friend who spent all his time helping others. Sometimes it was Habitat, often working in a homeless shelter, occasionally writing letters to the local paper protesting injustice in our state. He never stops helping and trying. He's had, in his day a great many failures and disappointments but here and there he has made a difference in someone's life. This friend asked him, "With all the craziness going on and so many things so wrong--what keeps you going? How do you keep on doing these good deeds?" "How?" the friend said, " I keep doing it because I rejoice in the smallest of victories." Hmm. Seems like a pretty good prescription for a hard time.

Want to read a story about an ordinary citizen  whose actions made an incredible difference? I found it last week on the "Lives" column in the Sunday New York Times. It seems that this 18 year old found herself pregnant. Sitting in the doctor's office she began talking to the woman next her who was a friend of her mother's."Where's your mother?" the friend asked. The girl told her when she became pregnant they kicked her out of the house and the family turned their back on her. She was all alone.

The woman asked the pregnant girl to have lunch with her at her house. She did and this was the beginning of a friendship that may have just saved this girl's life. The woman asked her when was her baby shower. The girl shook her head and said, "She wouldn't have one." And the woman said that every mother-to-be need a baby shower. So--weeks later this woman she hardly knew threw the biggest party you could imagine. I won't bore you with the rest of the story. Read it for yourself. I think it may just warm your heart.

Maybe none of us can save this crazy world. But we pass people every day that are hanging on by their fingernails. Sometimes a word, a deed, a reaching out makes all the difference. And perhaps for us late at night after the 11:00 news--we think back on some small victory that happened today and we smile and we rejoice.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Holocaust--Let Us Remember

Something inescapable is lost--
lost like a pale vapor curling up into shafts of moonlight,
vanishing in a gust of wind toward an expanse of stars
immeasurable and void.

Something uncapturable is gone--
gone with the spent leaves and illuminations of autumn,
scattered into a haze with the faint rustle of parched grass
and remembrance.

Something unforgettable is past--
blown from a glimmer into nothingness, or less,
and finally has swept into a corner where it lies
in dust and cobwebs and silence.
Michael R. Burch, "Something" for the children of the holocaust

Yesterday was a Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust victims. The old book of Deuteronomy tells us: "Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, Lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, And lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life; Make them known to your children and your children's children." (Deuteronomy 4.9) Let's remember the over six million who died at the hands of the Nazis. It was not only Jews that perished but also all the others that were deemed "inferior" by the Third Reich. That sad list included Roma Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, Russians, homosexuals, and people with physical and mental handicaps. 

After all these years it is still hard to believe the depths of evil that so many people in Germany endured. In the prison camp in Teresin 200,000 people were put to death. Of that number 15,000 were children. Records show that only 132 children survived in that camp.

After those few that were finally liberated little scraps of poems and letters were found stuffed in mattresses and cracks in the walls. Fanta Bass left these words as her last will and testament.

"A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses
The path is narrow
And the little boy walks alone it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more."

In 2011 a book came out  that deals with early days when Hitler was just beginning to come into power. In the Garden of  Beasts, Erik Larson tells the true story that in 1933 William E. Dodd was appointed the first ambassador to Hitler's Germany. Dodd was a mild-mannered professor from Chicago. And he and his wife and son and daughter moved to Berlin. With alarm Dodd watched as Jews were attacked, the press censored and frightening new laws began to circulate. The book traces the steps that ended with the Holocaust. I recommend this volume to anyone who would like to ponder the seeds from which this terrible chapter of our history took place. One of the most disturbing part of the book tells of the antisemitism of many in our government and the refusal of so many important persons to believe the dark memos that Dodd continually sent back home. This is an important book and it helped me to see that evil does not come to any of us full blown but comes slowly always bringing destruction.

In some ways we have not come very far in justice and compassion. The recent stories of American troops urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans was disturbing. Then came the story of the Marine who killed 16 or more people in a blood-bath which included women and old people and children. We still call so many groups "they." Sometimes inferior, always different--our record with immigrants, especially Hispanics, school bullies and those who still consider homosexuals flawed creatures not to mention the brutality that many of those we deem terrorists have experienced from our government.

 Just today I saw a bumper sticker that read: "Honk if you hate Obama." Not if you don't agree or don't like--but hate. What is wrong with so many of our people? Recently Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois chastised politicians who disagree with the bishop's views on health care reform. His word culminated in the outrageous claim that "Barack Obama seems intent on following a similar path" to Hitler and Stalin who "would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open". There has always been a deep strand of wild rhetoric and outright hate in this country--but you would have thought after all these years we would have learned something.

So on this Holocaust week-end ponder where we have been and where we are. Looks like we still have some homework to do.

(The photograph above shows the moving tribute that an artist has constructed in the Memorial Garden in Budapest to honor the 550,000 Hungarian Jews that died in the Holocaust. The Weeping Willow tree is metal and eight branches emerge from the base of the tree. On each branch are tiny leaves that bear the names of Jewish families that were murdered during those dark days.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

We Remember the Fallen

"One man shall smile one day and say goodbye.
 Two shall be left, two shall be left to die.

One man shall give his best advice.
Three men shall pay the price.

One man shall live, live to regret.
Four men shall meet the debt.

One man shall wake from terror to his bed.
Five men shall be dead.

One man to five. A million men to one.
And still they die. And still the war goes on."
           --James Fenton, "Cambodia"

For a long time in this blog I reported month after month on the names of the US troops that have fallen in this war called terror since 2003. But I stopped after a long time because there were too, too many names and I could not list them all.

But I come back to the war that still rages. Hopefully it really is winding down. But since its inception CNN reports that 7500 men and women have been killed. They come from 20 countries. They were soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and some US Departmental employees.

We are also told that over 15,672 US troops have been wounded in action. The lives of so many families have been torn apart and will be the same.  These figures do not include all those innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan that have lost their lives. They are really the tip of the iceberg.

 Nicholas D. Kristof writes in Sunday's  New York Times about the suicides that are the result of this war. He writes, :"For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands." And then he adds: "These unnoticed killing fields are places like New Middletown, Ohio, where Cheryl DeBow raised two sons, Michael and Ryan Yurchison, and saw them depart for Iraq." Both young men came home broken. Ryan died of a drug overdose. The mother says of Michael, "He is making some progress. He is able to get out of bed in the morning now."

Kristof writes in moving terms about this epidemic of suicides and broken returnees that we hear little about.  He has discovered that veterans from this war kill themselves at the rte of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are reported every year. Read Kristof's article and remember all those that have fallen.

"When after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why, taxes, widows, wooden legs, and debt."
--Author Unknown

Friday, April 13, 2012

Easter Is Sometimes Hard to See

Suppose you were given an assignment this morning to write the After-Easter story. How would you write it? Since the Tomb was open and Christ was alive—this would be a time of glorious celebration. Why the word would spread from person to person and from country to country and all would believe. We’d have pictures in all the papers and stories on all the TV news. We’d rent the biggest hall in town and everybody would come and celebrate. The churches would be full and the world would lay down its weapons and be completely different. And all the divisions between Red and Blue states and liberals and conservatives would be over. Why Fox News and NBC might even merge. After all Easter has happened. 

            That’s not how the story is written in the New Testament. And if there was ever any evidence of the authenticity of the story, the accounts we have after Easter ought to underline that very point. There were no brass bands playing. There were not overcrowded house churches everywhere. This great good news did not spread like wildfire. What happened? Mary came to the Tomb and thought it was the gardener. Easter is sometimes hard to see. Simon Peter, after Easter, was so tired of just sitting around that he took all the others fishing. And they fished all night and nothing happened. If we had been writing the story why they would have had to call in four more boats to haul in the fish. Not here. They fished all night and the next morning, tired and weary, someone called from the seashore and told them to try fishing on the other side. It was after Easter and they did not know who it was giving them directions. Sometimes Easter is hard to see. On the road to Emmaus, remember sad, deflated disciples just ambled along. It was after Easter and they were down. And a stranger came and began walking with them. Remember? And they did not know who he was. Easter is sometimes hard to see. 

Which brings us to our text. The story is found at the end of John's gospel. This was another after-Easter story. The disciples were still trying to unpack what it really meant. But they were having a hard time. For, you see they had forgotten what he had told them.  So they just gathered together behind closed doors because they were still scared. Why, what had happened to Jesus could just happen to them. John wrote that Jesus came and whispered Peace to them, not once but twice. He showed them his hands and his side and John said they were filled with gladness. 

After Jesus left they told Thomas the good, good news. Thomas said: "Alive? You gotta be kidding. He died. I saw him die. You must be out of your minds." And they kept trying to convince him and it did no good. "Unless I see for myself," Thomas said, "I will not believe." Sometimes, Thomas, Easter is hard to see. 

And so eight days later when the disciples had gathered once more behind closed doors--still afraid the Lord appeared to them again. But this time Thomas was there. And I love the way John puts it in the King James Version: "...then Jesus came…and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.”(20. 26) Then he went to the old doubter, the one who had a hard time believing this Easter business and said:" See. See."  And he showed Thomas his nailed-scarred hands and he pointed to the place in his side. And Thomas stood there open-mouthed, not saying a word.  

If we really were to write the story the way it happened we would probably be very much like those first believers. Mary, who saw the gardener. Peter not sure who it was barking out fishing instructions early one morning. We’re like those on the road to Emmaus and Thomas too, I think. It’s after-Easter and like them we mostly have the blahs. We are a lot like Thomas too, I think. It’s after Easter for us too. And in some ways it seems a long time since last Sunday when we came and decorated the Cross with flowers, packed the house and sang the Resurrection hymns. In just the short space of a week we’ve gotten caught up in the thus- and so-ness of life. And here we are sending in Income tax form, worried about people we love. Wondering about the church. Wondering about health care and the Presidential election and the state of our economy—still. What in the world does this Resurrection we talked about last Sunday have to do with all the things we’ve been wading through this week? Thomas asked it and we ask it too.  

I have found a clue to how we handle the post-Easter blues. The Liturgical Church has designated the Sunday after Easter Low Sunday. After the big day—everything seems like a let-down. Where are all the people that were here despite the fact it were Spring break last week? Where are all the decorations? Why even the cross is missing. And here we are, if we are honest wondering, wondering about many things.

And Jesus Came

Our Scriptures gives me hope. “Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and said: ‘Peace’.” So here is our sermon—and here are some handles that may just help us as they helped Thomas. It was after Easter and so little seemed to have changed. Same old…same old. Mary crying her eyes out. Simon just furious because the fish would not bite. Disciples stumbling toward Emmaus. Depressed as if Easter had ever happened. And then, if that were not enough—even after Jesus came and showed himself, Thomas did not believe. And this is what I want us to talk about today. Two things we find here that I think are most important. Christ came and stood in their midst. So Christ is here with us all. And when he comes—he brings peace.

 John says that Jesus comes and stands in their midst. Do you remember that setting? Behind closed doors. Scared out of their wits. They had already seen him once eight days before—the Risen Lord. But still they double-locked the doors and they were afraid. Over and over they must have wrung their hands and said: What are we to do? And among them was Thomas. He could not believe. Unless I see, feel and touch—I won’t believe. We’ve said it too, like the poet: “God, if you’re really God, fling us a dipperful of stars”. And God never does that.

But what he does do is to slip quietly through closed doors. He comes even to those who were afraid and did not believe and had some serious doubts. He comes. Even with the locks of unfaith on the door we cannot keep him out. He cannot be stopped by any bad news the world can throw our way.

Could this also be a word for the church? He never did say that the hard, hard times would not come. Did he? He did say, over and over, when the hard times come, I will be with you.  Do you believe that about our church? That here, with our sagging budget and lots of empty spaces today--we are not alone. This is God’s thing. God’s church. God is here. God will be with us all the way. Remember his promise? Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there. And here among people as flawed as us sometimes we really do see the face of Jesus in some deed or somebody’s face. Like Thomas and the others we forget. So we come back here to remember that Christ is here and it matters terribly. 

Let us be clear. Outside those locked doors stood Rome with all its power. And there would be Judaizers that despised them and their new movement. There would be a harsh and brutal world they could not control. Rome was out there. Poverty was out there. Slavery was out there. Mean-spiritedness was out there. Unfairness walked down every street and knocked on many doors. And, like us, they tried many things. If we could just lose twenty pounds or make a little more money or start jogging or take a course somewhere. Or build a new sanctuary or change our worship—bring in some guitars and a screen and lock up the old organ.  Forgetting there are some things out there that just don’t seem to budge despite all our lists and all our work.

Will Willimon has pointed out to me that one of the most heretical things we have passed on is this "Christ has no hands but our hands" story. You've heard it. And I've preached it again and again. The story goes like this: In a little European village there was a church that had a statue of Christ with arms outstretched to the world. But during the Second World War the statue was damaged. Both of the hands of the Christ were broken off. The church decided not to repair the statue but to add a sign to the broken statue: "Christ has no hands but our hands." The sign implies that if we do not do the work of Christ with our hands it won't get done. It says the work of Christ depends on us and if we don’t do our parts the cause will fail.

We need to remember this Easter story of Jesus coming behind closed doors. We’ve all knocked on doors that just would not open. But Christ’s hands were not blown off. The forces of evil had tried to do that--and still he came. Christ came and stood in the midst of those earthy broken disciples. They didn't unlock the doors. Some of them, like Thomas did not believe. It hardly matters. God will not be defeated by the work of our hands or the lack of work we do. I get a little weary with all the people today moaning about God being driven out of the public school classroom or the government or whatever political party we do not like. We act as if our little agenda does not win God must surely be defeated. Christ is here. And even if the storm rages outside the locked doors--it does not matter. God comes and stands in the midst of his people.

Christ Always Brings Peace

            The next thing Jesus said was just one word. One simple word. Jesus came and he said: Peace. In fact, he says it twice here. It is a wonderful word. He had already said it when he was trying to prepare them for his death and they were so afraid of the future. "My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give it to you." And then do you remember what he said, there with the shadows of the cross so evident: "Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."(John 14. 27)

            He said the same thing before and after his death. Peace. They weren't peaceful in that upper room behind closed doors. They had anything but peace. The word peace comes from the Greek word, eirene. The Hebrew word is shalom. It does not mean the cessation of war or an absence of trouble. After those disciples left that room with the locked doors eleven of the twelve disciples would by martyred for their faith. Times would be hard and the little churches they established would limp along and sometimes break their hearts. Many would defect. This word peace meant wholeness, completeness, health. It means: "I will give you everything that makes for your highest good." Peace.

And when the Lord Jesus stands before us he always whispers Peace. This peace deals with internal affairs and external situations. It means to lay down the weapons we use against ourselves--because we are our own worst enemies. It means to lay down the weapons we use against those closest to us--for we maim and cripple them the most. And it means to lay down the weapons we use against one another in the Church and in the larger world. I have not known a time when the blood pressure of this country has been higher.

Remember what Jesus said in the Beatitudes? If you want to be children of God you will be peacemakers. Doesn't mean to stand around smiling when you are raging inside. It means to lay down our weapons. You cannot have a fight without two opposing sides. We learn to make peace. We are all peace-lovers but the hard thing is being a peacemaker.

Let me tell you a story about peace making. Years ago in another place the parents dragged in their seventeen-year-old daughter. She didn’t want to be there. She just sat there with arms folded looking out the window. She had done it all. Running with a very wild crowd—had a thirty four year old boyfriend that she lived who had been married about four times. Her grades were terrible. Doing alcohol and drugs. Her parents couldn’t do anything with her. Later she would wander into my office and cry and want to turn it around and just couldn’t. And just about the time we thought she was making progress she would just tear it all up. Sometimes when the parents would come in and tell me the terrible stories I would wonder if she would ever, ever be any better.

Several years later, I went back to preach and this tall gorgeous young woman came through the line and said: “Do you remember me?” Did I remember her? How could I forget?  She hugged me, and whispered: “When everybody leaves there’s something I want to tell you.” When most of the people left she came back and said, “Guess what? You won’t believe this.  I finished college and got my Master’s degree. Here’s my husband.” Tall, good looking young man. Even wore shoes. Didn’t even look like a criminal. And then she said: “I’m drug free. Still go to AA every week but I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Guess what I’m doing? I’m a counselor at the college—helping people get through what I had to get through.”            

What does this have to do with our text? Everything. Sometimes the doors are locked and it’s dark outside and we are scared out of our wits. Easter seems to be far away. And the strangest thing happens. Jesus comes and stands in the midst of the fear and all the worry.  And we see the marks where he suffered for us. And then he speaks. With a smile, he says to you and to me: “Peace, brother…peace sister. Peace Mary, John, Harry, Suzie and Wayne.” Peace. And it covers every hard place and every terrible thing. Sometimes Easter is hard to see. But remember the story. Christ comes even through our locked doors. And when he comes he always brings peace.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Easter Memory

Sitting in church this Easter morning as the music washed over me my mind traveled back through the years to Easter 1992. I remembered Easter that particular year. In early December I had resigned my church without a place to go. I had been there for several years and things had just not worked out. I think if I had stayed we probably could have made it work. There were many good people there—many I still remember after all these years. But  never did feel like I was able to do there what I wanted to do. So—that December I resigned not knowing what the future would hold. I had had my share of disappointments and failures like any Pastor—but I had never felt like a failure until I left that church. My self-worth was just about at the bottom and though the church was generous in their settlement—at 55 years old I faced the future scared and anxious.

So Easter of ’92 we were visiting our son and his partner in Chicago. And that Easter morning we went to the Fourth Presbyterian Church to worship. It was a glorious service and John Buchanan preached a great sermon, but I was not in very good emotional shape. It just didn’t feel like Easter. In all my years in ministry, I had always preached on this special holy day. I had always loved Holy Week and Easter and its music and festivities and promise.  But Easter didn’t really come that year as I sat in that Chicago pew. I sat there wondering how the future could be anything but dark.

Sitting in church this morning I was reminded of those early disciples. They had a hard time believing that Jesus had come back. After all, nobody comes back from the dead. Mary, in the Garden did not know who he was. The disciples who came and saw the empty tomb probably reasoned thought that Rome had stolen the body of the Lord Jesus. Thomas wondered. And then, if that was not enough, days later on the Emmaus Road those two disciples trudged along not knowing the stranger that walked with them was Jesus. Easter had come and gone and they felt flat, hopeless and grief-stricken. They told this stranger: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” There are no sadder words in the Scripture.

I think I must have been on my own personal Emmaus Road that Sunday in Chicago. Easter had come and I felt nothing but emptiness. I thought my ministry was over and I saw so little hope for the future.

But sitting in church this morning I remembered not only those feelings but also what came afterwards. Easter really did come that year as it has come every year since the Open Tomb. Only as I looked back did I remember that life did not stop for me and for those I loved or for the church I had left behind. Three months later of that same year I was called to an inner-city Church in Birmingham that stretched and challenged me and allowed me to heal. While there we built a much-needed sanctuary with little money. We fought the gay battle in our congregation and came out on the far side still keeping faith with the open tradition of the church. I served there for eight good years and when I left they threw a party for me that was glorious. People came from every church I had ever served. There were eight to ten friends there from the church I had left in 1992.

While there I began to write for The Birmingham News. As the years went by I discovered I had written over a hundred pieces for the Sunday Op Ed section of the paper. That retirement was followed by seven Interims back-to-back. And I went all over the South preaching for three different denominations. So the years after retirement were not exactly retirement after all.

So, sitting in Church this morning I couldn’t help but smile. Easter really did come that hard Sunday in Chicago. If Easter is hope and promise and new life as I had always preached—well, all those things happened to me after that year I sat and listened when I wished I had been preaching.

Life was never easy for those disciples after the Resurrection. Many lost their lives because of their faith. But we would not have this story that has come down to us without the wonderful stories those first eye-witnesses left behind.

So—Easter really did come this morning at church. And even if I had missed it completely—Easter would still be a reality for us all. Easter I have learned the hard way does not depend on outward circumstances. Easter cannot be stopped by dysfunctional churches or pastors. Easter cannot even be stopped by locked doors or tombs shut tight or doubting preachers. 

Remember the old story about the man that asked his friend if he believed in infant baptism. The friend replied, “Shoot, not only do I believe it—I’ve seen it.” Not only do I believe in Easter—I’ve seen it again and again. And that is what I remembered as I sat in church this morning.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter Hope 2012

"Of course the women were there first
And never doubted His appearance.
Women are acquainted with blood. They tell life
     by the stain of blood.
They give life by the stain of blood.
Men, when they see blood, think death--
    think endings.
Women, too, know blood and death.
But their bodies are acquainted with
The never-ending miracles of blood
   and life.
Within their mourning slept that knowledge.
It brought them to His resurrection,
Ready to greet Him without question.
Their blood singing with joy,
They ran to tell the others:
"He Lives!"
       --Joan Eheart Cinelli

Every Easter I remember a scene at the Passion Play in Oberammergau in Germany I saw years ago. The play opened with Jesus riding into Jerusalem for the last time. The play ended with the Resurrection. And in-between, the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life took six hours to tell.  

I was not prepared for the Resurrection scene. The crucifixion had been particularly graphic. The stage went dark after Jesus was taken down from the cross by his loved ones. In the last scene of the drama the weeping women move through the darkness and stood behind these huge doors that represented the locked tomb. They knocked on the door and nothing happened. Then an angel came and without saying a word she unrolled an aisle cloth from the door down, down the steps toward the audience. As the women looked on, the door slowly began to open. Light, dazzling light slowly filled the stage and bathed the darkened room where we sat with light. After a long pause through that open door and the streaming light Jesus came. He walked down the steps and from stage left and right a hundred children come running forward and grabbed his legs laughing and laughing as the chorus sang joyously. 

That’s Easter for me. Light and hope and new beginnings and love and laughter. Somehow my old nine-to-five appointment book is disturbed once more. The predictability of my days is thrown off kilter. The thus and so-ness of my life--worries about money or health or children or just the weary world—is suspended for just a moment. And I can make it another year.

Station 14 - Jesus is Laid in the Tomb

"Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. There, accordingly, because of the Preparation Day of the Jews, for the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus.
                                                               --John 19. 41-42

Is there a sadder scene than those who stand around a grave of a loved one? It is so final and absolute. Oh, the preacher has read the comforting words. She has pronounced the Benediction.  Friends come forward to hug and say how sorry they are and what can they do and call them if you need to and say they are praying for you. And it helps some. They begin to move away--who wants to stay this close to death? Only the family remains and they sit there looking, looking. The flowers, some even now beginning to wilt. The plastic artificial grass that tries in vain to cover the red dirt that has been dug for the grave. Emily Dickinson expressed it as well as anyone I know when she talked about "the morning after death." It's so quiet you hardly hear the birds off in the distance. Out there on the other side of the cemetery gate life goes on. People driving, smoking, listening to the radio--thinking of what to do next. Life goes on. And there in the cemetery you don't think much about life. You think about your loss and all its means.

I love Cecile Martin's last Station of the Cross. She is close to the Scriptures when she portrays the dark tomb and the linen shroud and the women--only the women remain. So many stayed away. One Gospel said, "They all forsook him and fled." And the writer was talking about the men--the disciples. Not the women. Here they are faithful to the end.

We do disservice to the story when we move too fast to Easter and the Resurrection. The Church understood these last hard stations--the unfairness of the trial, the beatings and the pain, the betrayal of Judas and Peter--and then the march--the via dolorosa--the way of sorrows. It has wound it's way around the church's heart and has touched so many of us through the years. So we must stop here as have so many pilgrims through the years. We must stand before the locked door and try to feel what they felt.

Oh, we have known it when the lab report came back so bad. And the day the little boy died. And the friends that turned their backs on you--and the loss of a job or the dark "black dog" of depression that seemed never to leave. Or trying to revive a long-dead marriage. Or be part of systems that deny others--women, blacks, gays, the disabled, the poor--these are indeed dark places.

The last Station is part of life. It really isn't the last chapter. But we need to stay here long enough to remember our own desperations, our own griefs, our own rages against those things in our lives we cannot control. There is nothing glib about these chapters in our lives or this last dark station. They are part of the journey. Jesus' journey, The journey of the weeping women who came and stayed when everyone else had left. This Station is part of our  journey, too.

It isn't the end--thank God. But standing here before this closed, dark tomb it seems like the end. Even after Easter remember what they said to the stranger on the Emmaus Road: "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." Can you hear the sorrow and utter disappointment? This is the last station. It could be entitled properly: We had hoped. We know this Station well.

(I want to thank the artist Cecile L. K. Martin of Seneca, South Carolina for her generosity in allowing me to share her rendeirngs of the 14 Stations of the Cross with you. She teaches at the University of Georgia and can be reached at

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Station Thirteen--Jesus is taken down from the Cross

"Now when it was evening there came a certain rich man of Arimathea, Joseph by name. who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered the body to be given up. And Joseph taking the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb, which was hewn out in the rock."
                                                            --Matthew 27. 57-60

All four Gospels record this part of the drama. I wonder if they weren't trying to stamp out the Gnostics heresy that believed Jesus was not really dead. They said that Jesus was still alive when they took him down from the cross. After all they believed that Jesus could not die. He was more a phantom that took on the mask of a human being. After all God's son could not die. For tghem the word really did not become flesh. That would have been a scandal.

Yet here all four accounts of the story give us the same picture. The Romans left the dead bodies on the cross as a warning to all those who might just break the law. But the Jewish custom was to take down the body and bury it before sundown.

And so here, toward the end of this via dolorosa--this way of sorrows--the dead Jesus is taken down from the cross. This rendering of Cecile Martin's is moving. She has joined with a company of others who have tried to capture this sad scene. Dostoevsky wrote: "The people surrounding the dead man...must have experienced the most terrible consternation...which had crushed all their hopes, and almost their convictions." Rubens' painting of this scene is included in a group of the Twelve Greatest Paintings. One art critic has said that "Of all the religious paintings in the world, it has been one of the most admired." The great Rembrandt also painted the descent of the cross. He also left several etchings of this incident toward the end.  In Rembrandt's painting we can see the artist himself standing by the cross as they take the  broken down for burial. There is a woman reaching up in Cecile Martin's portrayal. Could she have included her own face in her picture. Who knows?

Perhaps we should all see ourselves standing pondering the sadness and depth of the story. We have a tendency to distance ourselves from the Gospels. But here as they take down the broken, bloody body there is no doubt that Jesus is dead. Let us stand close until the impact of this somber scene sweeps over us.

Turning away is understandable. It is one of the hardest times when we lose someone we love. To know, as if for the first time, they really are gone. They will not be coming back. They are dead and it breaks our hearts. We believers  know the rest of the Passion story that those figures around the cross did not then know. But stand by this cross until you are part of the story. Jesus died for us. For us. For the whole wide world.

After President Lincoln was assassinated his body was placed in a horse drawn carriage draped in black. It moved through the lined streets of that quiet Washington  morning. One black woman in the crowd held a tiny baby in her arms. As the carriage passed her way she lifted the baby high and said, "Honey, take a long, long look...he died for you." Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Station Twelve--Jesus Dies

"It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land, until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the curtain of the temple was torn in the middle, and Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.' And having said this, he expired."   --Luke 23. 44-46

It looked like you had come to the end. Death is like that. You watched and waited and prayed and hoped. Yet--none of these seemed to matter. Death came. And you just stood there, hugging one another or walking down that terribly darkened silent hall. There was nothing that you could say. Holy moments are like that. You just put your hand over your mouth and stand there in shock.

And nothing seemed to matter except they're gone-- out of sight to someplace never to return. And so you turned and went home to an empty house. And your mind swirled--there was so much to do. So many people to call. Plans to be made.

But you sat quietly on the couch with your hand over your mouth--still in shock. But somehow life went on. Not the same. Not ever the same. Not ever. But you got up slowly from the couch and began to do what you had to do.

It wasn't the end, really. That was Friday a day you would always remember. And year after year on that sad day there would be an ache and you would remember and remember and remember.

Death came that Friday afternoon. And you thought it was all over. For there was a dark Saturday to stumble through, followed  by a bright, sunshiny day. It hurt your eyes it was so bright. And the birds sang. And you peered out the window and it was Sunday. And hope welled up slowly in your heart. And you moved on.

Sunday came--despair slowly faded and you knew it really wasn't an end at all. It was a pause. For on Saturday that dark, dark pause that seemed to last forever. And yet--Sunday really did come. And hope crawled back ever so tentatively. And you knew, then that life would always be different. That the old story of the Emmaus Road was not just a story the preacher's tell. It had happened to you. And the Hallelujah Chorus would finally come--but it would be a long time coming.

In loving memory of my friend, Donald Yates 1939-2010 and my cousin, Ray Kelley October 8, 2011
(The contemporary Stations of the Cross are by the work of artist Cecile L.K. Martin, Seneca, South Carolina.
The original Stations can be found in her church,  St. Paul the Apostle Church, Seneca, SC)

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Eleventh Station--Jesus Speaks to His Mother


"A choir of angels glorified the hour
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
'Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...'

Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes.
Nobody dared."
--Anna Akhmatova, translated from the Russian
  Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

"And standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!'" 
  --John 19. 25b-27

Whose Mother?

Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or his mother’s sister.
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or Mary Magdalene or the wife of Clopas.
Whose Mother did Mary reach out to?
Mary or Trayvon’s mother?
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or that woman in a burka?
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or that old woman in a nursing home?
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or that mother that misses her soldier son?
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or the Lilly Ledbetters of the world.
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or that woman who trembles in a hovel in Iraq?
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Mary or all the other mothers who stand by and watch and weep.
Whose Mother did Jesus reach out to?
Whose Mother?
Whose Mother?
Whose Mother?
  --Roger Lovette

(The moving rendering of Jesus and his mother was done by artist Cecile L. K. Martin of Seneca, South Carolina. The photo at the end of this meditation is the mother of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton.