Monday, June 25, 2012

Gay Pride Weekend -- 2012

This past weekend was Gay Pride Weekend across the country. There were parades and celebrations in the United States and many other places around the world. This was an especially celebratory year because “Don’t Ask...Don’t Tell” was erased from military life and our President spoke out for Gay Marriage. 

I asked a gay friend of mine several years ago if he didn’t get discouraged with the slow progress of gay rights. This was his response.“Yes, I do get discouraged. When you have to stay in a closet to keep your job, when you have to pay your Doctor bills out of your pocket because if your employer found out you were gay you just might lose your job. But I remember the slow progress of the civil rights movement. It has taken us a long time to get where we are with race. Since we live in the South I know how complicated race is even today. And yet,” he said, “knowing history I know that the times are changing. I know we have made great strides the last few years. I also know we have a long way to go—but I believe we will get there.” 

As a Pastor I could tell you sad stories that cluster around gays. Men and women who have sat in my office and sobbed because their parents found out and told them they could never come home again. I remember parents who have come in and could not understand why Johnny or Suzie was not like their other children. I think of those committed couples who have had to seal off this primary part of their lives from their parents because they would be horrified to know their child had a gay partner. I remember a gay friend telling me that when his mother died her Pastor would not allow her gay son to sing at her funeral even though she had gone there all her life. They moved the service to another church.  

I remember a sad story a Pastor- friend of mine told me. A young gay man came home from California to die. His parents told no one. They were so ashamed. They were good church folk but would not put their son’s name on their church’s prayer list. No one even knew he was home. He never had a visitor. When he died there was no obituary notice in the paper. No one in their church’s dinner group or church family knew of their sorrow or their secrecy. The boy was buried with the minister and his father and mother standing by the open grave. The funeral home had provided the Pall Bearers.  

Yet—I have been Pastor of more than one church where people moved over and made room for some gay person or couple. I have watched little blue-haired women stand at Church and say, “I would vote for Billie any time to be my Deacon. I know he is gay but I have watched the care he gave his grandmother and I hope my family will treat me the same.” I have watched a church open its arms and take an AIDS baby into their nursery.  I know a Sunday school class that swerved communion to one of their members dying of AIDS. It was the last food he took before he died. I have known distinguished members of the community that shook their fingers in my face and said, “You are destroying this church by allowing gay members to worship here.” But, years later, that same couple came back and said, “We’re so sorry we did that...we know better now. I just wish we could turn back the clock.”  

I know the excesses of a few in gay pride parades and other places. But these are in the minority. I have also learned that to be gay is not about what one does in the bedroom anymore than heterosexuality is simply what happens in their sexual relationships. Homosexuality and homosexuality is not what we do—it is who we are first. We’ve come a long way even in my lifetime. We have a long way to go—but I am proud of my President. And I am proud of those pastors scattered here and there—more than most people realize—who have bravely stood up for everyone and not just some. And I am very proud of those churches that have realized the “whosoever will may come” is not just a gospel song but also a mandate for God’s people everywhere. And I am proud to be part of a country that is still moving toward liberty and justice for all.

I lived through some of the hatred of the black’s yearning for justice. I have seen the same thing in some faces when it comes to gay folk. But we may not be moving as fast as we should—be slowly that old dream of liberty and justice for all is not just a pledge to be said—but a promise to be kept.

I recommend John Grisham's book of short stories, Ford Country. The last story in that book is entitled, "Funny Boy." It is the tale of a young man with AIDS who comes back home to Mississippi from California. It is a moving story that this great story-teller tells with grace and sensitivity. I recommend it highly.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

What Every Church Needs

In Washington, DC where I have lived most of my life, we are surrounded by death--from handguns and knives on street corners; to the US Congress which contracts against the poor, votes for executions, builds new prisons and cuts health care; to the Pentagon, with its preparations for war, the greatest institution for the promotion of death in the history of humanity. Death gets the last word.

And yet, and yet, in our churches, we gather in prayer; we sing' we hear the word of God; we break bread and pass the cup; we join hands with one another; we offer a sign of peace; and we go forward into the streets to say 'no' to death and 'yes' to life.'"--Selected

If you were take a piece of paper this morning and make a list of what your church needs—what would you put on your list? Maybe more money—more money to pay the bills. Maybe more people—some folk to fill up these empty spaces. Maybe you would put down—we need to do some renovation around here. Or maybe have more volunteers—the work seems to fall on just a few. But I am sure that most of you would put: We need a Pastor. Of course you want a perfect pastor. Somebody who preaches 15 minutes or less. You want a worker: somebody who works from 8:00AM until midnight. Someone you could pay say, $200.00 a week and he would wear nice clothes, drive a nice car and give at least $75.00 a week to the church. He would be about 28 years old and have 30 years of experience. His wife would not only be beautiful but would do anything around the church anybody asks. She would attend all the meetings and most of the committees serve as church janitor in a pinch and spend her time keeping an impeccable house, perfect children and always have a smile on her face.

I want you to put your list down beside the second chapter of Philippians. For here I have discovered some very wise words from a Pastor to his favorite church. No wonder they were his favorite church. So they remembered their former Pastor with gifts and prayers and concern. They also sent Epaphroditus to be his companion while he was in prison. Epaphroditus had brought Paul news from Philippi. The church there was having a hard time. They were persecuted. Some had lost their jobs; some had been threatened with loss of life because they were Christians. They had begun to say—if Paul is in prison—then what in the world will happen to us? They were taking out their fears on one another. Little pockets of divisions were beginning to crop up. That was the news that Epaphroditus brought. And so Paul sat down to write. To let them know how he was faring in that prison cell. He also wrote a thank-you note for their care and generosity. But he also wanted to help them through a hard time.

The book of Philippians was a letter of joy. Sixteen times in four chapters he used this word joy. He told them, his favorite church: more than anything else he wanted Philippi to find the way. From what he heard from Epaphroditus he discovered they had taken some wrong turns. He thought a long time about what he wanted to say to his friends there. And so he began to write and embedded in those words I have discovered what Philippi needed and every church I know needs.

So we turn to that second chapter of Philippians. Fred Craddock has said that what we have in these verses is an appeal for unity and solidarity. What was this appeal? What did he write from that jail cell, across the miles, to his friends in Philippi?

A Proper Attitude

Every church needs a particular attitude. We might call it a Christian disposition. “Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”(vs.2) This word attitude or disposition has come from something he had written several paragraphs back in the same letter. “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” (1.27-28)

He used the word same twice in our text. Same mind, same love. If that thing called church was to work in Philippi their disposition, their attitude would be like their Lord’s. We need that don’t we, as a church and as a nation. People everywhere are angry. Most of the time it is not obvious but it is barely beneath the surface. Read the Letters to the Editor in your newspaper. We choose sides on everything. Us and Them. We and They. Listen to the TV commentators if you can stand it. A lot of anger out there. Did you know that 1600 pastors are dismissed every month from their churches? Think of the pain and the heartbreak for everyone. We all know that anger can be destructive and irrational.

We could all identify with a man who was driving home late one night. He decided to take a short cut. It was about 1:00 in the morning. And he felt the car lurch—he had a flat tire. He got out and opened the trunk lid and there was no jack. No jack. Where had he left it? He didn’t want to call his wife and bother her. But looking around he saw a light in a farmhouse way down the road. So he began to walk there. He hated to wake up the people but he was desperate. He needed help. So as he walked along the road he began to mutter to himself: “I’m probably going to make that man mad by knocking on the door and waking him up. Likely, the kids and the dog will rouse up. His wife would say: ‘What in the world?’ And the man kept talking to himself out loud. Even if he does own a jack he probably will be so mad that he won’t let me use it. “ By that time he was on the front porch of the farm house and knocked on the door. When the farmer finally opened the door the motorist shouted in his face: “You can just keep your old jack!”

We’ve got to turn down the temperature in our lives and in church and in the world. Anger is dangerous if it is misdirected. We all know that. So how are we with all our differences attain any kind of a unity that can help us down the road?

Humility is the Key

 Paul gave us a secret here. We all need to listen closely. He said:” Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2.3) What Philippi needed is what every church needs. Christ’s motive. The key that opens the door is humility. Humility? That’s it. Humility. Paul wanted them to be doormats? Just lie down and let Rome or whoever else comes along just run over us. Just smile and take it. Grin and Bear it! Is this humility?

They misunderstood, as sometimes we misunderstand this word, humility. Paul knew that in Philippi there was more than a little self-seeking, looking out for their own interests, their own rights. Me! Me! Me! And so he says this is not the way of our Lord. Looking out for Number One. Winning is not just an important thing. Winning is everything. No. Paul said” Look out after the interests of others.

Frank Stagg wrote, in his commentary, humility does not mean self-hatred, self-despising, rejection of self. It does not mean to be pushed around by whoever or whatever comes. Humility does mean we refuse to let our personal interests or advantage govern the course of our life. One Sunday after Church a young woman stood at our table to take our lunch orders. She looked tired as she pushed her hair out of her face. “May I help you?” She did a good job. As I was going to the counter to pay my bill she came. “This must be a hard job,” I said. “Mister, you don’t know. I’ve been here since 6:00—had to wake up my little girl and leave her with a baby sitter and I didn’t sleep good last night.” “I’m sorry,” I said, “You did a good job” “Must be hard day after day.” And she said, “Sundays are the worst. I hate this day. So many people come in here after church and they are so hateful—not all of them—but a lot—and they almost always leave lousy tips.” Think she'll ever go to church?

Paul says that humility is to consider others. Give them the benefit of a doubt. That person in front of you or the one that tapped your car in the back. Maybe they are having a bad day. Have you ever had one? Maybe they carry a grief around that choking them. Maybe their heart is broken or they have the heavy burden of a sick relative.

We all get pushy and selfish sometimes. We all have bad days and sometimes bad weeks. We know how we want people to treat us when that happens. Someone to listen. To give us space. To care. To regard others. And sometimes to forgive us. Sounds like the definition of a Christian.

Humility saves us all from self-righteousness. And of all the sins in the Bible, Jesus was very hard on self-righteousness. Why? Because it constructed these walls between people. And you can’t get over and you can’t get through. But the humble know they are part of the human family. They work on their arrogance, on trying not to be so pushy—demanding their rights. Humility. Paul says we need it in church. But they did not know how to do this. They wanted to tear down the walls. They hated self-righteousness in others and yet it crept up on them like the flu. Did I say that? Did I really act like that?

Servanthood is our Model

Paul gave them a remedy. It is the third thing the church always needs. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”(2.5-7) We discover his secret is our secret. Like Jesus, we are to take the form of a servant.

Remember his words on the Sermon on the Mount? Saying the poor in spirit were blessed, the persecuted were blessed. They were to watch their anger. Everybody gets angry! They were to not only not commit adultery—but also watch their lusts. Our thoughts, that too. He talked about turning one’s cheek to an enemy and walking a second mile when a Roman soldier asked them to carry his pack one mile. Isn’t this just a little overkill? He talked about loving our enemies and pray for those who spitefully use us. Judging not, and all kinds of impossible things. G.K. Chesterton once said: “The Sermon on the Mount is not a beautiful discourse that our sad but sane planet cannot rationally accept. It is really sanity preached to a planet of lunatics.”

We are to serve one another. Jesus says that it will save us from lunacy and madness. Karl Menninger was a great psychiatrist. He was giving a lecture on mental health, as he often did. And he opened it up for questioning at the end. “What would you advise a person to do if that person felt like a nervous breakdown was coming on?” The audience knew he would say: “Consult your local psychiatrist.” He didn’t say that. He did say: “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find somebody in need, and do something to help that person.”

Paul pointed to Jesus. This is our model, he said. We are to put into practice this spirit of Jesus in the church. And we do that, as we do like our Lord. We empty ourselves; we take the form of a servant. 
Paul told Philippi in the letter that every church had to major on service. Reaching out and helping somebody else. An eighty-year-old man in Washington State volunteered to be a mentor in his church with new Christians. A friend asked him, "Why in the world would you do that at your age?" And the man said: “Some people come into our lives and quietly go. Others stay for a while and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never the same.” 

Could this be what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Philippi? Could it be what God has in mind here as we struggle to live in this hard age...trying to be the Church God wants us to be. Not me...but us. Not them...but we. Leaving footprints on someone else’s heart. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Father's Day--2012

"If God chooses you to have a son,
For just twelve years you may     remain his father.
From twelve to twenty, try to be his teacher.
Thereafter you may hope to die as his friend."
   --A Mexican Villager

Somewhere I read of a young man that in a fit of rage killed his father. That night when everyone was asleep in the jail the jailer heard the boy sobbing: “I want my Father…I want my Father.”

Almost all parental relationships have a double edge: love and hate. We spend half our lives trying to find our own way, reject our family’s values and strike out on our own. Muttering all the way: “We’ll never be like him.” But somewhere during Middle Age a change occurs. Most of us spend the rest of our lives looking for our fathers. We dig through old photographs and letters. We search our family tree to see what made him tick. We call old relatives we scarcely know.  What worried him? What were his dreams? What broke his heart? We long to ask our long dead Father some heart-felt questions. 

 Fathers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are heavy-handed and make us feel suffocated. Some sit before the TV with a beer and cigarette in hand--present and yet almost always absent. Some fathers are mean and cruel—dead-beat dads that abandon those who need them most. Others are pious to the point of absurdity yet their children know better. But there is also that great number who pay their bills, stay and keep things safe and secure. They are good models for adulthood. They may never look like Ward Cleaver or Ozzie of the old TV family shows. But the children with these faithful fathers are blessed all their lives. We may hold up:”Hi Mom” signs at the ball games, but if you sit in a counseling room very long the word father always bubbles to the surface. Good or bad—father becomes the theme that flows through so much of our lives.

 Despite it all blood runs deep. Some of us remember hunting and fishing and ball games and golf and walks in the woods. Others wish for a good relationship that never was. Yet all is not lost. On this Father’s Day maybe we ought to draw the circle of fatherhood larger. For out there everywhere are surrogate fathers that helped so many of us along. They taught us in Sunday school or Boy Scouts. They taught us to throw a football or stand up against the local bully and never tell a lie. These adopted fathers should never discount the work they do. Many of them by their quiet influence have kept some of us going. If you made your own list of substitute fathers that list might surprise you.

When my own daughter was little she would climb up into my lap as I sat reading the newspaper. She would push the newspaper aside, take both of her hands and place them on each side of my cheeks. She would turn my head to face her eyeball to eyeball. When she finally had my undivided attention she would say: “Look at me, Daddy. Look at me.” Maybe of all the things we want from our fathers and surrogate fathers boils down to simply this: to look at us, to know us, to listen to us—to be present and accounted for always.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury--Goodbye

"Joy is the grace we say to God for his gifts given."
                            --Ray Bradbury

There are certain books that make you glad to be alive. When I learned yesterday that Ray Bradbury, the author had died at the age of 91 I remembered the debt I owe to him. Two of his books helped open my eyes to the world around me. First, it was Dandelion Wine. The second book was Fahrenheit 451. That first book tells the wonderful story of a twelve-year old one summer. He discovers the magic and wonder of being alive. He also has to come fact to face with death--but he finally comes to feel that life is stronger than death.

I remember someone in the book inventing what he called The Happiness Machine, you'd enter that contraption and suddenly you would be happy. The problem is the machine just did not work. You'd enter the contraption and nothing happened. Douglas comes to the realization that the only happiness machine there is resides in one's family. Nothing else was more important.  Even after all these years I still think about that book.

The second  book is entitled Fahrenheit 451. Strange and futuristic and prophetic, I think. It is the story of a fireman Guy Montag whose job it is to burn books in a mythical city in America. Years before a special interest group and a small cadre of very vocal people objected to certain books and called their ideas dangerous. Rather than permit conflict and varying opinions in their town they decided to burn all books. The people in that town do not read books, enjoy nature--spend time alone or have meaningful conversations with one another. Most of them sit in front of huge TV screens and while their lives away.

The fireman meets an old Professor that teaches him abut awareness and fresh ideas and a freedom to read and think what he wishes. Montag is blown away by this idea. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature in which a book will burn. It seems to me that it would be a good idea for people to read this book and ponder its implications. We live in a world where there is little dialogue across the chasms that divide us. This is a mean-spirited time in which we don't talk to the opposition and we certainly don't respect ideas that vary from ours.

Once years ago I wanted to use a quote from one of his books and had to get permission from the author. Ray Bradbury wrote me back a handwritten note and said certainly I could use that quote. Along with that little note he sent me a Christmas poem that he had sent out to his friends that year. I still have that poem. It began: "Joy is the grace we say to God for His gifts given." And this gift called Ray  Bradbury has brought me joy through the years.

The quote I asked permission to use comes from Fahrenheit 451.  I have used it in more funerals than I remember. I think it is a good a tribute to Ray Bradbury as anything that could be said about this marvelous human being.

"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies...A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched someway so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawncutter might just as well not have been there at all: the gardener will be there a lifetime."

Interestingly enough Ray Bradbury was quoted as saying, "The great thing about my life is that everything I've done is a result of what I was when I was 12 or 13." He was a prolific writer  and his tales have appeared in books and magazines and movies and television screens. In many ways he was like twelve-year old Douglas. He said he was inspired to become a writer after a chance meeting with a carnival magician who tapped him with a sword and said, "Live forever!" As you read his books you can see the magic and wonder of life flowing through  what he wrote. He certainly lived up to that Benediction that magician gave him as a boy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

We Remember the Fallen

Over the last couple of years from time to time I have talked about how important it is for us to remember the fallen and the wounded troops that have served our country. They have put their lives on hold, left their families behind to fight for their nation. Some have had four or five deployments in a row. For a country that keeps talking about family values—do we not have any idea what these disruptions are doing to these families? And we hear horror stories of many wounded that return and the difficulties they have with re-entry. Many have found it hard to find a job. Many wait weeks or months for treatments. This is one of the reasons that some of these brave men and women keep going back to Iraq and Afghanistan for yet another year or more.

I have a hunch that when we look back that we will have to call this war—the sacrifice-less war. While our troops serve valiantly—we go about our lives scarcely thinking about those in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been told that this is the first war that our nation has fought without raising taxes. Yet—we at home grumble at the very idea of raising taxes. This war on terror has just about bankrupted this country. Someone said recently that Congress should adopt a resolution that we will not enter another war without asking the nation to do their part—which means paying the bills. During the Bush years the cost of the war was not even included in the national budget. This would be like saying here is our household budget but we left out the house and car payments.

So some of my blog pieces have nudged you to join me in not forgetting all those who have given their lives or given years of their lives for those of us back at home. We must remember the fallen. Just this week I read about two young men that grew up at our church in South Carolina who have started an organization to help us remember. It is called Sea2Sea. These two young men are part of a team that will bicycle across England and the United States—traveling 4200 miles to raise money and consciousness for this worthy effort. I hope you’ll read their web site, contribute to their cause—which really is our cause—and remember them on their journey.

They say they hope to raise 5 million dollars for the United Kingdom and 10 million for the wounded in this country. Every once in while something comes along that makes you glad you are part of the human community. These two young men and their colleagues certainly should make us all proud. As you go about your work and your life—never forget the fallen. They are our neighbors, friends, sons and daughters—children and parents of a great many. The writer Joan Didion says in one of her books: “When we lose a sense of the possible we lost it fast.” In this hard time—these two men restore my faith in a sense of the possible.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Baptist Church Called Faith

"How hard it is to escape places! However carefully one goes,
  they hold you--
You leave bits of yourself
  fluttering on the fences,
  little rags and shreds
  of your very life."
  --Katherine Mansfield

(I was invited back to the church I had served six years from 1969-1975. I could not attend that special day because of a conflict. If you had driven by that church you wouldn't think much about it. It was tiny and non-descript. No big huge educational facility. Just a little church by the road in a subdivision. Yet--something happened there in that tiny space in those turbulent years that I will keep with me until the finish line. These are the words I sent to the church to be read that special weekend.)

I remember a tiny place with a slanted roof and folding chairs. I remember a concrete floor—no carpet. I remember student Frank Brown, now a distinguished professor, playing the piano. I remember how our first secretary had her desk in our dusty darkened hall. We had little space. I remember my office in a Sunday School classroom right off the sanctuary. 

 I remember Sunday School classes that had to meet in homes. I also remember a choir, unrobed singing gorgeous music Sunday after Sunday. I remember those Sundays when I was like a Kentucky racehorse in the stall—I couldn’t wait for my time to preach. They listened—and they stretched me—and made me work sometimes harder than I wanted. 

 I remember women Deacons and how many churches thought us strange. I remember the war years when the kids straggled in, some barefoot, protesting the draft and the war. I remember building our educational building with incredible faith and little money.

 I remember so many: Jim and Betty Bergman, Edwina Snyder and Bob, Bill Vessels and Stuart Sharp. I remember Tom Corts and Marla and Dan and Barbara and Sandy and Everett. I remember George Redding and dear Carolyn. I remember the Roses and the Davilas and the Ellers and Jenny Parker and Hallie Hymer, washing his car next door every single Saturday. I remember John and Darlene Drake and the Heisers and Evelyn Aulick and Martha and Dick Scudder and Lindsay and Judy and Gwen and Joe and Shirley. I remember Judith and Wallace and Dr. Mills and dear Millie and Mrs. W.B. Jones who never joined but came Sunday after Sunday. I remember Flem Smith sitting as close to the girls as he could get. 

I remember hippie weddings at the horse farms and all those students that passed through on the way. I wish I could name them all—but I do not have the time or the space.  I remember that painting that used to hang in the back of the sanctuary, which told of a time when the church reached out to a family who had lost a child. And how that bereft father painted that picture as his gift of thanks for what the church had done. If you squinted your eyes embedded in that painting was Jesus with his arms outstretched on a cross. I remember how we experimented on Sundays in worship—sometimes God walked down the aisle and touched us all. Some Sundays our experiments flopped and God stayed home. 

 I remember those weekends when we opened our doors to the whole town and showed movies and served popcorn because we had no theatre. I remember how good I felt knowing that my two children did not have the finest educational facilities but they learned what church was all about. All kinds of people, mostly accepting and loving and a gospel that had no limits—well, not many anyway. I called it my first Camelot and even today my heart swells with gladness and pride for what we did in that little place with folding chairs and a concrete floor on Sunday mornings.  

*I’ve left a lot of people out of this list not because they were not important but because my memory, unfortunately has faded since 1975. But for all those who slipped away into the mystery and to us all I leave the old Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead: Into paradise may the angels lead them; at their coming may the martyrs take them up into eternal rest and may the chorus of angels lead them (and us all) to that holy city and the place of perpetual light.”