Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Advent--Watching Time

"A string of questions overheard at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands in New Jersey at the start of a Giants football game, from a small boy clearly attending his first big sporting event:
'Daddy, which one is Phil Simms?'
'Is that real grass?' 
'Where is Lawrence Taylor?'
And finally, after several moments, as the players take to the field after the Cornell Big Red Marching Band to the fans' thunderous approval:
'Daddy, is this live?'"
   --from Dear Diary, The New York Times

Here we are again on the edge of Advent—four weeks until Christmas. I opened my old Book of Common Prayer to the Advent season and the first word of the first Scripture caught me. “Watch,” it said, “Watch ye, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.” I got stuck on that first word: Watch. Hmmm. Watch—for what? The old text reminds us to keep our eyes open in the evening...or midnight...or early in the morning when the cock crows somewhere...or a little later in the morning. Watch.

Sounds so simple doesn’t it. I guess I’ve preached a whole lot of sermons from Jesus’ words in Mark. Yet, looking back I missed most of it—all that was going on around me. I was too busy writing it out for somebody else than to live it—this watch. Oh, I went from pillar to post—from hospital to nursing homes to listening to somebody’s problems or speaking at some Christmas breakfast or trying to smoothe some ruffled feathers and mostly I didn’t have a clue what I was missing.

Jesus said it doesn’t matter where you are and or even what condition you are in. Just watch. Cross-eyed in pain or pissed-off at life. Bored out of your skull or just wishing you could be somewhere else where life wasn’t so hard or complicated or maybe just winning the lottery which, if I had any sense would know really would not help.

So this Advent I’m trying to hang on to this tiny word: Watch. Funny word really. I am a watch (and clock) freak. I had a whole lot of watches in my dresser drawer. In every room in our house there are more than one clock—some ticking and some dead but there. They tell me the time—what time it is. Maybe my watch should be to look around me at what is happening this very minute. Not to kill time. Or to pass time. But to watch this moment.

Could it be, as old Moses sorta discovered that the place where we all stand is holy ground. Where the desert wind blows too strong and the scorpions do bite and the water is never enough and you are a zillion miles from where he promised you would be. Holy ground? Here—in my retirement years—with a shoulder that aches and feet that won’t let me run anymore. Here I am to watch. Maybe it will take some stretching for me to realize this place and this ground is holy. But maybe if I keep my eyes wide open maybe I shall see some of those wondrous things that have been there all along. Or if not see—at least try.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Friends--A Love Letter

It’s an old song but this Thanksgiving I can’t get it out of my mind. “One of these days, Neil Young plaintively sings, “ I’m going to sit down and write a long letter/ To all the good friends I’ve known...”
The relational dimension to life is primary. And, looking back on my long circuitous journey I couldn’t have made it without those along the way that loved, accepted, judged, lifted me up, laughed with me, prayed for me, and sometimes just kicked me in the butt. 

Carlyle Marney used to talk about “the balcony people”—those that sit in our balcony and cheer us on. My, my we all have more people in our balconies than we can ever remember. Parents, of course, if they hadn’t picked me up and cleaned me off and held me—where would I be? Teachers, all the way back to the first grade. I still remember that first teacher. Then there were the playmates that made the days richer simply because they were there. Being a Reverend Church folk have played a powerful part in my journey. I still remember those checks they sent when I was in college—and they didn’t have much. Or that friend who never could go to college herself. She fell into a fire as a baby and was horribly scarred. Especially her eyes. And so she worked in a knitting mill for years—sending me and another friend little checks month after month. Who can forget such sacrifices? Or that envelope that came week after week with fifteen crumpled dollars to help me through the week. And then from time to time there would be this huge box with cookies and a cake that was my favorite. 
I think of all those youth workers at church and camp and so many other places that believed in me. Like that Lifeguard that told me as I floundered in the water trying to earn my life-saving certificate—“Keep going Roger, keep going. You can make it.” That scene could be repeated more times that I can remember.

I remember that Seminary teacher that told me what my Journalism teacher had already told me in High School. “You can write. You have something to say. You must write.” They cracked a door that maybe would have not been there without them.

My best friend is my wife who has put up with me through thick and thin. She loves me unreservedly—knowing all my flaws-=-and loving me still. And along with her I would add my two children who have blessed me immeasurably and forgiven all those stupid things I did that caused them hurt or harm.

There have been people in every church I have ever served who stood beside me. Sometimes, like Moses’ friends--holding up my hands when I was too weary.
Some people who had never been out of the country and yet put up with all my immature shenanigans. They did not have to do that. People who left their own burdens long enough to help shoulder mine. Often when they never even knew it.

One of my favorite memories are those colleagues and friends along the way.
My, my they have put the sun back in my sky again and again. I have been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses, some living and some dead—that made the difference in life and half-life.

Oh, I wish I could sit down and write every one a letter. This Thanksgiving I pause long enough to remember the names and faces and occasions that have made me a much better person than I ever thought I could be.

A colleague in one church gave me what she called a “Gravy File.” It was a file folder. She instructed me, “Keep it close, put in this file all those things that have been gravy to you.” That was years ago—and my filing cabinets are full and running over with notes and photos and obits and bulletins and programs that have enriched me often.
Whether you have a file or not—take some time this Thanksgiving weekend. Remember. I guarantee if you think long enough you will be grateful for your journey. Without those along the way you and I could never have made it.  

"Oh, the comfort,
the inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person
Having neither words to weigh thoughts 
nor measured words, but pouring them
All right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them;
Keep what is worth keeping
And with a breath of kindness
 Blow the rest away."


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanks--the Best Word

"No other word will do. For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years ago he was told he had six months to live at the rate he was going. 
And he was going nowhere but down. So he changed his ways somehow. 
He quit drinking! And the rest? 
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about, well, some things that were breaking down and building up inside his head. 'Don't weep for me,' he said to his friends. 'I'm a lucky man. I've had ten years longer than I or anyone expected. Pure gravy. And don't forget it."  --Raymond Carver, Gravy.

It is reported that toward the end of his career, Mark Twain was paid a dollar a word when he wrote magazine articles. A cynic, hearing that report, sent him a dollar with a note saying: "Dear Mr. Twain: Please send me a word." Mark Twain took a single sheet of paper and scrawled one word in large letters across the page: "Thanks" and sent it back to the man.

 This one word is at the heart of our faith: Thanks. We call it Doxology. From earliest days the people of God met to praise their Lord. It was a remembering they did of the greatness of their God. They remembered many things. Slavery, Egypt, the Red Sea and crossing on dry land. They remembered a wilderness and water that sprang from a rock on thirsty days. They remembered manna that came from somewhere in the heavens on hungry days. They remembered giants in the land and how God led them even in their days of insurrection. They remembered young Moses their great leader. They remembered that twisting, winding journey of forty years. And they remembered the goodbyes of old, wrinkled Moses at Moab and the crossing of a ribbon of a river and a land flowing with milk and honey. And out of their remembering one word would fill their worship until it ran out all over the place: “Praise to God the Almighty the King of Creation”. In the Old Testament they often called their doxologies blessing. And so the blessings were received at the end of hymns, at the end of a single Benediction of a longer prayer. Even after every mention of the name of God there would be a Doxology of one sort or the other. In the New Testament Doxologies and Thanksgivings are everywhere. The focus was on Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

After the Offering we usually sing a Doxology. It was part of a hymn written by Thomas Ken in England in 1673. The present form that we sing was written in 1709. It is said that this Doxology has done more to teach the doctrine of the Trinity than all the theological books ever written.

The last book in the Bible is filled with Doxology. There are at least ten doxologies found in the book of Revelation. (4.11; 5.13; 7.10,12; 11.15,17; 12.10; 15.3-4; 19.1-2, 5, 6-7). And on this Thanksgiving Sunday I choose the first Doxology from the book of Revelation as our text. It is as good a reason I know to praise God.

Listen to the first Doxology in Revelation: “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen."(1.5b-6)

A New Status

They praised God because they had discovered in him a new status.” To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood." So on our Thanksgiving list let’s first put down two words: love and freedom. These were the reasons they praised God. He loves us and he has freed us. The tense of the word love is interesting. God loves us--present tense. But it should read: he keeps on loving us. This love of God goes on forever.

 Of all the words that we give out in church love is the greatest of these. Unconditional love. When the great Central Church in Honolulu was under construction, the architect came to the Pastor and said, "There is to be an inscription on the pulpit stand. It must have eighteen letters and spaces. We want you to select that inscription." The Pastor thought about what would be appropriate. What would carry a message for all those that would come there? It would have to speak to the hungry pilgrims who made their way to Holy Communion. It would have to be strong enough for the times when they would slowly roll caskets into the church and on those golden days when there would be weddings. What would be an appropriate message for cold days and summertime when the sun would shine brightly? Finally after much prayer and meditation, the Pastor came up with the inscription. Can you guess what it was? Big enough to follow us all the days of our lives? Eighteen letters and spaces: "Love Never Faileth." Put down that love that never lets us go and you will find a sufficiency for whatever it is you face. You are loved. You will always be loved. That is one reason they thanked God.

 If the tense of this love is present and continuing—the next word of thanks is in the past tense. "He has freed us from our sins by his blood." The tense is past. Williams' translation says He has released us. But I like the American Standard Version better. He has loosed us from our sins. We are now free.

 I do not know a word that we need more this Thanksgiving than an understanding that God really has loosed our burdens and set us free. The power of sins has been broken though some of us have not yet heard this good, good news. He came to set us free.

 This Thanksgiving wouldn't it be something if we could somehow capture this word of thanks: freedom in a personal sense. Paul Scherer tells that when the slaves in Jamaica heard that on a certain day they would be set free word spread quickly throughout all the villages. And the night before that great day they all spent the whole night getting ready. And from the houses and huts and villages there moved through the darkness twos and threes --men and women and children--out into the lanes, where they were joined by other woman and men and children and together they moved through the forest and the plain, climbing the highest hill through the darkness. They crowded together—women, men and children on top of the mountain. They waited for the sunrise that would change their lives forever. And just as the first faint streaks of dawn became to show itself on the horizon, a ripple of laughter spread through the crowd like the murmur of waves. Then a shout went up, and they began to sing in their own peculiar Jamaican rhythm, everybody with their arms around somebody else, paying no attention to the tears that ran down their cheeks. Some fell to their knees as the sun came over the hill, and lifting their hands to heaven one and all, they said their Doxology: "Free! Free! Free!"[i]  I wish that somehow we could all hear this grace note of the gospel. We are loosed, washed, loved and set free. This is our status.

A New Identity

 But we are also given a new identity. "He has made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father..." So on our thanksgiving list let’s put two more words: kingdom and priest. First, there is a new Kingdom. In the old Kingdom--our old identity we were told that we did not count. We were told we were not important. We were told we did not matter. They would sometimes whisper: "Just who do you think you are?" My friend in California who has written over twenty books and is distinguished Professor at a major University was told in the seventh grade that he might be a construction worker if he was lucky but he would never make it through college. How could a little old orphan boy do anything important? This is the old Kingdom. But in Revelation the tables are turned. There is a new Kingdom. And in the eleventh grade, thank God, another teacher called my friend aside one day and said: "I believe you ought to go to college and I am going to see you get a scholarship." He was been interviewed on NPR. He has written for everything—including The Wall Street Journal. He has recently written and directed a movie that has won all sorts of awards, which dealt with growing up in an orphanage. This Doxology says there is a new Kingdom.

And now for the second word he uses here: priests. In the Old Kingdom only the duly ordained Priests had access to the holy place. When a Jew entered the temple he or she came into the Court of the Gentiles and moved into the Court of the Women and if you were male you could even move closer into the Court of the Israelites. But there you stopped. Only the priests could go into the Holy of Holies where God's presence was supposed to be. But this Doxology says that this has all been changed. It means that we are all priests. The unordained. Women. Children. Halt and the lame. The less-than- perfect. The mentally and physically challenged. Gender or sexual preference does not matter. We are all priests. We can bow our heads in our own holy of holies and talk to God. There is no second-class citizenship in this Kingdom. We are all somebody.

A New Song

We have a new status. A new identity. We are also given a new song. "To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen." Lenski, the scholar, says that the Greek here takes its greatest term for time--the eon--pluralizes it--then multiplies it by its own plurality. Thine will be the glory and dominion forever and forever. The closest thing I can think of is the end of the magnificent Hallelujah Chorus, which says: Forever. Forever. Forever Forever. Messiah is the king of kings and Lord of Lords. Forever. Forever. So let’s put down on our Thanksgiving list the word praise.

This is the new song that we are to sing not only at Thanksgiving but everyday. Revelation was written in a time of terrible persecution. They thought it was the end of the world. Rome with its mad emperor required them to renounce their faith and say: Caesar is Lord. And Christians all over the Roman Empire not only lost jobs and homes but many, many of them died because they would not say Caesar is Lord. And John's response? He taught them to sing a new song. Glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

 Sitting in the Doctor’s office the other day an African American nurse was giving me a flu shot. Not wanting to look at the needle, my eyes wandered to a table that held a cloth bag that obviously belonged to the nurse. There was an inscription on the bag that read: Every day is Thanksgiving Day! I survived the shot and asked the nurse, “Is that your bag?” She nodded. I said, “How can you believe this?  Your people have had a long journey. Surely you have had a hard time along the way, especially growing up black in Birmingham, Alabama. And she said, “That’s true.” And then she pointed to the words written on her bag and said, “But that’s truer.” Every day is Thanksgiving Day!

 This is Thanksgiving week-end. On Thursday we will sit down all across this land at tables laden with the blessings God has poured out. Many of us will be surrounded by those we love. As we bow our heads to say a prayer of thanksgiving, remember the words of John in this first chapter of Revelation.

We have been given a new status: “To him who loved us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” We have been given a new identity: “He has made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and father…” He has given us a new song: “To him be glory and dominions forever and ever. Amen.”  No wonder every day is to be Thanksgiving Day.  And no wonder Raymond Carver called it gravy.      

[i].Paul Scherer, The Word God Sent (New York: Harper, 1965) p. 203

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-Election Musings

"Let us raise our heads,
hold hands
So that we don't lose our way
in the tangled grass."

  --Czeslaw Milosz, "The Excursion
      to the Forest"

 This election takes me way back to the late sixties. My friend was a strong Republican and I was a strong Democrat. One day we started talking politics and realized how different we saw things. But we discovered those differences did not drive a wedge between us. We were good friends and laughed and kidded each other over politics. I moved away after living there several years—but every election night the winner would call the loser. Sometimes we had not seen each other in several years—but on election night her phone or my phone would ring late in the evening.  It was a tie that bound us together—two friends who could never agree on political issues yet had a friendship that transcended our differences and opinions. I saw her about three years ago. She was on oxygen, was battling cancer and told me she thought her days were numbered.   We laughed about those phones calls that stretched back through the years. But she didn’t make it for this election—there is a gravestone in Southside Virginia that marks her passing.

But as Mr. Romney gave his gracious concession speech and President Obama accepted his win like a President—I thought about my friend in Virginia and all the arguments we had. Somehow we are going to have to put our weapons aside in this country. We’ll never agree on many things. We are poles apart in so many ways. And yet the challenge ahead is bigger than political parties. We have much work to do.

Almost all people across this country basically long for the same thing. They want the economy to improve. Many need jobs. They want us to pay down our stifling debts. They want the war to end and to bring our troops safely home.  They want the thermostat of rage and rancor to be brought down to a decent level. They want those that we have elected to move beyond posturing and winning and losing. They want the gridlock of the last four years to be put aside. They want our representatives in Columbia and Washington to care more about the state of South Carolina and our country than their own concerns.

Once I heard Andrew Young tell a story about a farmer who put his favorite chickens in a pen for a cockfight. When he got to his destination he opened the back of his truck and was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the pen but blood and feathers. He kept saying, over and over, “They didn’t realize they were on the same side.”

As we write a new chapter I remember my friend and those calls we made to each other on election nights. And I remember the ties that bound us together. This is what I ask of our politicians as they get back to work. It is time for gridlock to end. This is what I envision when I think of all those that stood in long lines to vote. But we cannot leave our hard work just to the politicians. We, the people, must do our parts to make our country strong. There is something larger here than winning and losing. It is time to reach some agreements and compromises. We are on the same side. If we don’t learn this lesson nothing of consequence will be accomplished. There is too much at stake for mean spiritedness to continue.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Saints Day--A Reminder We All Need

"For all the saints who from their labors rest, who to the world their steadfast faith confessed, Your name O Jesus be forever blessed. Alleluia. Alleluia." --Hymn 

Alex Haley told the story that when he was a little boy and upset his grandmother would say: “Alex, we don’t when Jesus is gonna come back—but he is always gonna come on time.” I have found those words to be true more times than I can remember. Here is one of those experiences.

I was spending two weeks in the summer at Princeton Seminary. When I left home things were not going well in the church. I just felt like I was at a dead end and I did not know what to do. Should I leave? Should I stay? Not too many churches wanted a guy in his mid-fifties. It was a hard time when you stand at the crossroads and no path ahead seems clear.

One of my favorite places in Princeton is the University Chapel. From time to time I would wander in that sanctuary and just sit. It was built between 1925 and 1928. It was designed by the leading Gothic architect of that day, Ralph Adams Cram. It is rich in symbolism and its windows tell the greatest story ever told in a beautiful depiction. One day I moved toward the front facing the altar. O my left, near the front I stared at this particular window. They call it the great north window. Looking closely I saw that it depicted endurance. Jesus stands at the center of this window. He is surrounded by many who have been martyred for the faith. Underneath the window carved in stone are the words: “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” It is a window of endurance.

Some days I would look up and just cry. Some days I would look up and marvel at the stained glass Jesus and the faithful. Even after I left Princeton and made my way back home I remembered the endurance window. And I began to think if Jesus kept them in the hard places of their lives—surely he would keep me. That window, among other thing, kept me going in that difficult time.

All Saints Day is that time when we stop and look up and remember. It is a holy day because we are all surrounded by mothers and fathers and friends and colleagues and so many who have gone before us. We would not be where we are without these that loved us and cheered us on. Carlyle Marney used to say, “Even the worst of us—who have known nothing it seems but terrible experiences-- need to remember that when you were born somebody washed you off and held you or you wouldn’t be here at all.”

Somebody. A lot of some bodies. The faithful ones. The enduring ones. The ones who have made a profound difference in our lives. Put aside these things that seem so important and ponder the great mystery. Thanks to them we all have come to know that through them, the faithful ones, Jesus has always come to us on time.
"And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
then hearts are brave again, and faith grows strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!"