Thursday, February 28, 2013

Immigrants Just Won't Go Away

"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw yo a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"
           --Matthew 25. 37-40

All this immigration talk reminds me of an encounter my wife and I had at a Fast Food restaurant in Atlanta. The night Manager was Hispanic. He came by our table to make sure everything was all right. We started talking. I told him how troubled I was over our immigration debate. That casual remark opened his door wide. He told me how scared many of his friends were. Some had already left the State. He told me they only wanted to work and send money back home where things were so tight. One very sick friend, he said would not go to the Doctor or hospital because she was afraid of being deported. He told me he kept reading that these immigration laws had nothing to do with racial profiling. He shook his head. “I have been stopped 6 times in the last few months mostly because I was Hispanic.”

Immigration struggles are not a new problem for our country. About three years ago my wife and I were in New York and decided to visit Ellis Island. We took the subway down to the ferry, stood in the long line, got our tickets and headed for the boat. We passed Miss Liberty with her torch held high and those words of Emma Lazarus’ inscribed below: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free...” When our boat landed we toured the place where immigrants first landed in this country. Some fled terrible conditions in oppressive systems. Most of them came hoping for a better life.

One room in the Museum displayed pictures of some of those who came from great distances and how they were treated in this country. Most of our ancestors must have been somewhere in that early crowd. I looked at their faces wondering. There were Irish that fled the poverty and hunger back home. There were Poles, Italians and Jews and Orientals. Thousands came from many ages and many cultures.

One photograph stopped me cold. It read: “Japanese sentiment on the West Coast peaked between 1911 and 1924. A ‘Swat the Jap’ campaign swept Los Angeles in 1922. In Hollywood there were signs and leaflets that read:

You came to care for lawns,
And we stood for it.
You came to work in truck gardens,
And we stood for it.
You sent your children to our public schools,
And we stood for it.
You moved a few families in our
And we stood for it.
You proposed to build a church in our neighborhood
You impose more on us each day
   until you have gone your limit

Republicans and Democrats are reading the writing on the wall. Most of the Hispanics in the last Presidential election voted for Mr. Obama so both groups are courting Hispanics for their votes next time. There is something much larger here than votes. Hispanics and other ethnic groups know the difference between genuine caring and manipulation for votes. They are not stupid. They came here hoping for a better life, to feel safe and put down roots and call America home.

Most of those who have come here have worked hard and made our country better. We see different folk in the Grocery store wearing saris to cover their heads.  I see Chinese having their own separate service in our church. I see Hispanics mowing our lawns and gathering our crops. Many have started their businesses. Signs in Spanish and English are cropping up everywhere.

When the history of this turbulent age is written I wonder what they will say about our leaders and us. Will they say that we tried to turn back the clock, to bar the door, to make suspect anyone who was not like us? Or will they say a new day dawned during those days. They took in those that came, they learned to appreciate the richness of other people very different than us. They enriched our country with their food, music, art and family values and strong work ethic.

No wonder Elie Wiesel once said the ugliest word in the English language is illegal. No one is illegal. I remember, he said, that illegal was the first step in Germany to the gas chambers. There is more at stake here than trying to manipulate people to win their votes.  We talk a lot these days about our Constitution. The question is will we learn to say: “liberty and justice for all...” The answer to that question may just determine what kind of a people we really are.    


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Sixth Station - Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

"Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of did it to me."
      --Matthew 25.40

We move on, we pilgrims. We’ve met Simon who bore his cross and the Mother who stood by brokenhearted. But here in the Sixth Station we encounter not a gospel story but a legend.

From the Fourth Century dear Veronica has come on stage and taken her place in the Stations. This woman, whose name meant true icon or image is at the very heart of the Way of Sorrows—the Via Dolorosa. As that ugly crowd jeered and spat and sneered at the wounded Jesus, Veronica of whom we know so little squeezed her way through that swarm of hatred. Her heart went out to this one who stumbled and bled and suffered. From around her head she took the covering all women were supposed to wear in public. Who knows what rules or customs she may have broken that day in this simple act. Pushing her way through the angry mob she took her veil and tenderly wiped the face of Jesus. It was only a momentary gesture of love and compassion and yet in that moment she patted that face as clean as she could. No man would do such a thing. This was woman’s work.

She turned away from the ugliness and the pathos of that moment and left the crowd behind. As she started to put the veil back on her head she noticed the strangest thing. Embedded in that cloth was the face of the suffering Jesus.

Artists the world over have been intrigued with this story. Many have painted the scene with Jesus image beautiful and strong. But others, understanding the story much better have carved or painted or etched an imprint of Jesus suffering, wounded and scarred—a man like us.

What does all this mean? This Sixth Station. Many things I am sure. Could this stopping off place be a mirror, too for us and not just her? Hmm.

Is it too much of a stretch to say that when we dare to reach out and touch another’s wounds we might just come away with the scarred face of Jesus. He had told them, “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these you do it unto me...” He had already told them that the blessed ones were the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungerers, the persecuted and the reviled...”

All the way through the winding bumpy gospels his work was always specific. Never general. A woman at a well. A dying child. A man crippled all his life. A near-naked woman caught in adultery. And if not these there was a Zaccheus and a Peter and a James and a John and a Martha and her sister, Mary and even a Lazarus.

Do we not find him, too in the messy specific situations of our lives? Sometimes gay or a wounded warrior in Afghanistan or a PTSD victim and his frightened family. It might just be your Mother with cursed Alzheimer’s or that man across the street with cancer or your friend that carries around what seems to be an endless depression.

And so when we reach out in caring and love we come away seeing the face of God clearer than any other times in our lives. Isn’t this what really was back of those Beatitudes after all. Blessed are__________and you and I must always fill in the blanks.

Something happens to the Veronicas.  In his face we see our faces and all the hurtfulness so many have had to endure. It’s more than the blood and gore of Jesus. Ask Veronica. Here all of us might just find some hope and promise for ourselves in a seemingly hurtful world.

Arthur Miller, I think writing out of his time with dear Marilyn Monroe wrote in his play, After the Fall, “There comes a time when we all have to take ourselves in our own arms.” And maybe when we are wiping some face or bottom of some child's spills we really do see who we truly are. Children of God. Human. Scarred. Often wounded. Us—us—children of God. Who would have ever believed it?

This Station is more than a legend. It is a story that could become your story and mine. And in the doing we will come away time and time again carrying in our hearts the face of Jesus. Irenaeus understood this when he said that he became like us that we might become like him. And this I think is one reason the Church did not leave Veronica out of the journey that led to Calvary.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Fifth Station--Simon Carries Jesus' Cross

"After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his clothes on him. The  they led him out to crucify him They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull)."
           --Mark 15. 20-22

I think the Church has kept the Stations of the Cross through the years because so many Christians have identified with Christ and his cross. The suffering Jesus reminds us of all who suffer. The falling Jesus we know well because falling is part of our nature. Jesus’ encounter with his mother reminds us of the primary relationships in our lives. But this fifth station like some of the others is a mirror, too. Simon, probably a passerby—coming to Jerusalem probably for his first time to celebrate Passover—found himself standing, like so many others in that crowd, wondering what the uproar was all about.

Straining over the heads of others he saw this man they said was named Jesus. He was blood-streaked and weak and kept falling down while trying to carry his heavy beam to his death. Someone had to pick up the cross but no Roman soldier would contaminate himself for any criminal, especially a Jew. So they pulled Simon out of the crowd. Three gospels mention that he was compelled to carry the cross of this condemned man.

So pilgrims through the years have looked up at this rendering of Simon carrying someone else’s cross and seen their faces. For Simon is a symbol of all those forced to carry a cross not their own.

In this long and ragged parade of life most of us are spectators—lookers-on.  George Buttrick said that we all begin life as a passerby. And the tragedy is that many never graduate from this role. But not in this story. We recognize Simon. He’s the one who is drawn quite unintentionally into the hard role of carrying another’s burden. Reckon that Principal at Sandy Hook who stood in front of the shooter and took a bullet trying to protect her students could be called Simon? But usually most of the Simons are really unheralded heroes. The husband who has taken care of his crippled wife for 40 years.  They were married 52 years and most of those years he spent helping, rearranging, doing what he had to do. Messy work. Hard work. Tedious work. Standing by her through 6o surgeries. It’s the parent who tries year after year hoping to help their daughter break through the addiction which is killing them all. To be a Simon is exhausting and unglamorous business.

So Simon really is all those who, forced into circumstances not of their own doing or choosing, just do what has to be done. The strange thing that happened to Simon was that in carrying Jesus’ cross it changed him forever. His sons Alexander and Rufus became leaders in the church later. Surely their father’s influence had something to do with that.

Most of the Simons bear no famous names. They just do the job forced on them. And this is why so many pilgrims have pondered the mystery of the fifth Station. If Simon had to bear Jesus’ cross—cannot we, in some hard place find faithfulness, too.

Albert Schweitzer was right when he said,  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.” 

(These 14 renderings of the Stations are the work of the African artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. The artist has fused his training in western techniques and materials with his own heritage, cultural experience and inventiveness that is undeniably African.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Station 4 -- Jesus Sees His Mother

"There were also women present...
These women had followed Jesus
  when he was in Galilee...
Near the cross of Jesus
  there stood his mother.
   --Mark 15. 40; John 19.25

This may just be the most heart-rending of all the Stations. Surrounded by curses, spittle rocks and stones and jeers—Jesus sees his mother in the crowd. There are other women there but we will talk about them later on this journey. But first he sees his mother. He must see her tears. He must see in her face her anguish. And standing there amid all that hate she is one with her first-born in solidarity. Who knows? I think the memory of that face would follow him all the way to Calvary.

And so I hope that all those mothers in Newtown can stop at this Station.
I hope the mother of the mother that shooter in Newtown can stop at this Station.
I hope the mother of majorette Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago can stop at this Station.
I hope Trevon Martin’s mother in Florida can stop at this Station.
I hope the mother of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufizia can stop at this Station.
I hope that all those other mothers around the world whose tears and aches seem almost unbearable can draw strength at this Station.

For Jesus carries the heavy burden of this cross down whatever lane or project or door or apartment or mansion or hut in Africa there may be. For this is their Station.

He cannot stop the suffering in so many of these terrible places. But that Savior who takes away the sins of the world also brings mercy to all in need. I do not understand it. But somehow this is enough. 

(This series of the Stations were done by the African artist, Bruce, Onobrakpeya.)

Salute to a Sufferer

"Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the might ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea."
              --Navy Hymn

Years ago Hazel asked me to speak at her funeral. And I come today to try to keep that promise. And I’ve wondered what I might say on this special occasion when we have come to honor a very great lady. And I remembered a book I read years ago called, Crossing to Safety by the Western writer, Wallace Stegner.

The book begins with an old couple married for over 50 years. They had traveled a long way first by plane and then a long drive by car to get to the summer cottage they had stayed in every summer with their friends. The book opens the first morning after they  arrive. The husband gets up early and makes the coffee. She sleeps late and when she does stir he comes and brings her coffee. He helps her put the braces on her legs and finds her crutches .She had been left crippled by polio years before. He helps her to the bathroom and leaves her until she is finished. With a tap-tap on the door he goes and helps her out of the bathroom. Puts her crutches down, takes the braces off her legs and slowly helps her put on her clothes. Then he helps her put the braces back on and hands her the crutches.  He helps her up and they slowly make their way down the steps.  He holds her arm so she won’t fall again. She had already broken an arm and a hip. Hand in hand they move down the walk to eat brunch with their friends. No wonder the writer calls his book, Crossing to Safety. He says that none of us move across the swirling waters to safety without somebody helping us. We can’t do it alone.

I couldn’t help but think about this story when dear Hazel left us Friday afternoon—surrounded by her family. On Friday they told her that they loved her. They kissed her. They prayed together and then they sang: “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound...” And not long after that she quietly she slipped away into the mystery.

She crossed to safety—across the swirling waters of so much pain and difficulty. And yet she made it, not alone. We can’t do it alone. She made it because of Butch—our hero that has given much of his life to help the woman he loved across the dark water. They were married for 56 years. 40 years of that time she was suffering from arthritis that got worse and worse. Somebody asked him one day: “How do you stand it? Why didn’t you leave her?” And Butch said, “I kept remembering those little words I said at the altar: ‘In sickness and in health...for better or for worse...’”He held on to those promises and they helped each other across the wide, wide river.

But there were others that helped her cross to safety. Renee and Jimmy and her grandchildren, Abby and Caroline and Bailey. And friends helped—she had so many friends. And Church helped—she loved this church with all her heart. And God, of course helped. She hung on to her faith and some days it surely must have been hard. 60 surgeries. All that pain. And yet she still believed. These—and many other graces got her to the other side.

And so we thank God today for many things. God’s faithfulness. The Holy Scriptures she read over and over in that worn-out Bible. We thank God for all those 20 years she taught at Daniel High School and Edwards Middle School. How many students did she help across the waters? She was an inspiration to all of us that knew her. And Butch too. And so first we offer a doxology for her special, special life.

 But there’s more. We can’t stop there. For in this place that she loved...under the shadow of this cross—we would remind the family here: Butch, Renee and Jimmy and all this family that the cross-beam comes all the way down to where you are. And the promises that Hazel found through her long journey she would want you to find too. “God is a refuge and strength in time of trouble...therefore we will not fear.” “In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.” “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.” “Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death—I will be with you...” “I will not leave you comfortless...I will come to you...” “Let not your heart be troubled...” And then most of all we would remind this family:

 “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: ‘See, the home of God among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things has passed away.’”

One more word. Hazel would remind all of us that have gathered to surround her loved ones to remember that cross-beam of God’s love comes down to all of us. And we, too who will one day cross the swirling waters—need to reach out to one another and help each other along the way. All the way through the Bible there is this word that comes like a tom-tom beat to all of us: “Do not be afraid...Do not be afraid...” And this is what we come back to today. We are not alone—Hazel, her family or any of us. And we thank God from beginning to end for those wonderful twin angels that carried her along—and us too. We know their names, don't we? “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.” Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  

In loving memory of Hazel Trent 1933-2013

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Third Station--Jesus Falls

"We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned." 
      --Hebrews 4.15

"We all play hard knowing that we live in a haunted house."
                          --Carlyle Marney

Standing here before the Church’s third station look closely. As two spectators watch and a Roman guard stands by—Jesus falls.

This Station, I think, is a mirror. We’re the spectators aren’t we? Standing by watching as Jesus falls. The Lord Jesus falls! It’s scary, isn’t it? We don’t often think of Jesus exhausted, lying in the dust. Why the Gnostics, then and now, have tried to erase this dark picture. But they are wrong. All his energy and resources really are spent. Jesus falls.

Here he is as human as he will ever be. More than that wilderness day when he was tempted. More, even than that pain-filled moment when he moaned: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” This is the human Jesus. Like the old woman in the TV ad: “I’ve fallen down and can’t get up!”

We know this woman, don’t we? We fallers. All our lives we have had to deal with limitations and frailties and a very basic humanity. On hospital beds or shuffling with vacant, empty eyes down some nursing home hallway. Or sitting across the desk from the man in a white coat who says quietly: “I have the lab results.”

This third station really is a mirror. Like Humpty-Dumpty we all fall down. Sometimes it’s an addiction or a strange virus that winds its way through our bloodstream. Sometimes it’s a broken, fractured relationship. It’s being gay in a very straight church. Or being clumsy in an athletic community. Or just peering into the mirror and knowing the whispers, “God, she’s just homely” really holds some truth.

And so some of us refuse to accept what we see in this mirror of the Third Station. And so we wait in some doctor’s office for botox or plastic surgery or testosterone patches in the hopes that we can slip by this third station once and for all.  Exercising like crazy—trying to forget what really cannot be forgotten: the limits of our lives.

Some of us face this third station with bleak resignation. We are the defeated ones, never Number One—Number One. We are the losers and we just slip into the background, giving up the fight knowing the old poet was right: “There’s nothing but the night.”

But some of us accept the burden of our finitude. We have come to know, like Jesus that we can’t do it all or have it all. Like Adam and Eve there is a wall around our Garden, too. We know that nothing can hold back the lines around our eyes and neck, the exhaustion that overtakes us day after day or having to just make do with a back that hurts and a child you cannot reach Is it possible that we could learn to accept our humanity, hard though it may be

And so this Third station is our mirror, isn’t it? Jesus falls. “He had to become like his brothers in every way...”(Heb. 2.17) But sisters too, I think. And standing here before this third station we cannot ignore that we are human beings holding in our hands our limits, our frailties and the enormous losses of our lives.

But let us remember that the church said this is Via Dolorosa, this Way of the Cross is a long and winding journey. This third station is not the end--for Jesus or for us.  

(The renderings of the Stations are done by the African artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya.  His work is found is museums and galleries all over the world. His limited edition set of 14 linoleum-cut prints of the Stations of the Cross were produced in 1967 for the Saint Paul's Church in Nigeria.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Second Station--Jesus Takes the Cross

"At the the cross
where I first saw the light..."
    --Gospel song

Pause with me and look at this second station: Jesus takes the cross. Pilate kept sarcastically saying to the crowd: “This is your King.” In mocking fashion they put a purple robe on this man with the blood-streaked face. The  robe stuck to the bloody lashes on his back, arms and legs. The crowd wanted blood as crowds often do. Pilate asks a last time: “Shall I crucify your king?” And the Chief Priests answered for the crowd: “We have no king but Caesar.” Y Tube would have a field day with this scene.

Where does the power really lie? In the pageantry and might of the great Roman Empire? Or could is possibly rest in this one who talks of another kingdom. There really are two kingdoms. A kingdom of power and might and there is a kingdom of power and glory.

Have you ever said, maybe not out loud but somewhere deep in your heart: “We have no king but Caesar.” Maybe you never said it but you have lived like it. Take away the economic uncertainty and all the talk and all the fear and there would hardly be any news to report. Money really does make our world go round. We have just come through another ugly election. We voted for power from either one candidate or the other. We want to get things done. And even after the election everything is in disarray because of what? Power. One of the movies up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards is a film about torture. It raises the question could we ever win this war of terror or whatever without torture. We gain so much this way, we are told. It is power over another. Ask those at Guantanamo Bay behind those guarded fences about power and torture. Our major discussion is how many troops do we leave in Afghanistan and how many drones do we send into Pakistan just to show who’s in charge. We could even mention the football fans that yell, “Number 1...Number 1.” Who wants to be Number 2?  What about guns—that’s a whole discussion itself. On the personal level some of us opt for success and others of us have given ourselves over a smorgasbord of addictions. The tail really does wag the dog, doesn’t it? “We have no king but Caesar.”  Was that then or is that now?

We know, don’t we? We know. But standing here before Jesus seemingly powerless, forced to take a cross we have to face a disturbing question. This Kingdom Jesus talks about what does it mean for you and me and us and the whole world?

So Jesus takes up the cross. And after all these years we still keep coming back to this Second station of the Cross. What does it mean to stand here and look, really look at the One who carried the cross? Where is the power? Where is our power? And we too must answer who is our king? Not an easy answer is it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The First Station--Jesus Before Pilate

"Some time ago at the University of California San Diego, a  young woman raised her hand in the  middle of a seminar about the first century of Rome and the dawn of the Christian era. She seemed genuinely disturbed by something. 'I know you're all going to think this is crazy but I always thought Jesus was an American."

In this First Station of the Cross, Jesus stands before Pilate. His face is bloody. He is cross-eyed dizzy with the pain of the last night’s beating. He reels back and forth finding it hard to stand. And Pilate, sitting upon his throne looks down at the prisoner for a second time. The Governor leans forward and asks the prisoner, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “Is this what they say,” Jesus responds, “or is it what you say?” Furious now, Pilate bristles, “Am I a Jew? Your own people have handed you over to me. Tell me what you have done.” Jesus replies, “You don’t understand. Neither do my own leaders. My kingdom is not of this world.” And Pilate responds, “So you are a King.”

After all these years we still ask the question. Who is this Jesus? Oh we think we know. We have whispered his name a zillion times over the strangest of issues. We’ve made him white and brown and Southern and Tea Party and racist and liberal and defender of whatever status quo makes us comfortable. The Nazis painted him blue-eyed with blonde curls and of course Anglo-Saxon. They are not the only culprits. We’ve tried to drag him into whatever it is we wish or want or dream.

Some time ago an artist named Barosin painted a “Head of Christ” with a blue background. People complained that the background did not go well with strong colors in their educational buildings. So one Press obliged the complainers by offering Barosin’s “powerful” portrait in a neutral background. Christ was made to fit the environment around him. They said that he was whoever they thought he was.

 Not so says this first station of the Cross. Look carefully. He was a man. A man like us and yet different. The leaders if Judaism and Pilate and most of us have tried to force him into our molds. But it doesn’t work. Jesus is the sufferer. He bled like us. He was despised and rejected more times than not. He was love personified and yet the world then or now doesn’t understand this other Kingdom. “In Christ there is no north nor south, there is no east or west. But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world.” Whatever happened to that idea?”

Carlyle Marney used to tell preachers, “ Boys if they ever find out that Jesus was a Jew we’re going to be in deep trouble.” And he was right. We want him to be like us. And he calls us to be like him. And so standing by this first Station of the Cross—Pilate washes his hands as the prisoner Jesus takes his first step toward the cross. Ponder the question as you look at this rendering. Who is He? Who is this Jesus?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Happy Birthday--Liz

Elizabeth—it’s your birthday and I raise a toast to you. You’ll kill me for blabbing it out—but when you turn 89 that’s quite an accomplishment. As you know you are one of my fav-o-rite people.

We began our friendship journey back in 1975 when I became your Pastor. From the very beginning you stood out. Well—you always stood out. You were a whirl-wind at church and just about everywhere else. Whenever I wanted anything done I called Liz. And then got out of the way.

You were married to Ed and you all had a great love affair. You were about as different as two people could be—left brained and right brained. An Engineer and an Artist.  But you made it work and had a great marriage and had three kids—Shelley, Dale and Jed. We drove a long way to get back to Ed’s funeral because we loved him as much as you. It was a hard time for you to say goodbye.  He died much too soon.

But you kept going. You taught art in the High School here to a zillion kids. You inspired my own son who learned so much from you. I wonder how many there are out there whose lives have been touched by you. Many, many. You give teacher and art a good name. You were elected the South Carolina Teacher of the Year—an honor that is about unheard of for an artist. Usually it went to Mathematics or English.  Your paintings have gone everywhere. I can spot your work a mile off—I recognize your distinct style. And your work is good—very good.

You never stopped. Still haven't.You built a new house in a wooded area with lots of light in your eighties! A couple of months ago I asked you if you had been sick and you said, “No I flew up to New York to attend a conference.” Pretty good for an 88 year old—but that’s only in body.

You called me one day and said you were getting married and wanted me and my wife to come.   I asked, you, “Liz, are you sure about this?” And in your wonderful Southern drawl you said, “Of course.” And that was that. Well—it was a wonderful wedding. You and your new husband Morris. He has been remarkable in his own right. When he retired at 65 from being Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences he went back to law school and practiced until his nineties. You all have had some wonderful years. And though Morris health has slipped you all are very much in love.

So I stop what I am doing and remember all the good times we have had and all the wonderful things I have observed in you. You’ve made life richer for so many of us. Tonight some of us will gather at a restaurant and lift up a glass to a very great lady. Happy Birthday, dear Liz—and I’ll say it once more: you are one of my favorite people.   

Ash Wednesday--Standing in Line

(Last year I wrote this poem about my experience on Ash Wednesday--and included it on my blog. It says what I want to say this Ash Wednesday.)

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

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


Lent Begins: Stations of the Cross--An Introduction

Every Lenten season for the last few years I have been turning to the Stations of the Cross and writing meditation after meditation. The Stations of the Cross, also called The Way of the Cross, the Way of Sorrows or simply the Way. They tell the story of the Passion and Death of Jesus. Each Station represents an event which occurred during Jesus’ passion and death on Calvary.

Pilgrims first visited the Holy land and would make a pilgrimage to the different places it was purported that Jesus lived and died. During the Middle Ages when the Turkish invasion of the Holy Land prevented Christians from visiting the sacred sites in the Holy land, replicas of the sites began to crop up all over Europe. Christians would come to these sites to pray and meditate. The Franciscans were given custody of the sacred places in the Holy Land in the 1300's. In the medieval versions the number of the Stations varied from eleven to thirty-seven. By the 14th century the practice of meditation on the visual representations of Jesus’ journey became a regular part of Christian devotion in monasteries and parish churches. But the end of the 16th century the number of Stations were reduced to 14.

If you travel to almost any Catholic church in the world you will find some form of these fourteen stations. Protestants, deeply suspicious of imagery and artistic representations of the Gospel story refused to follow this practice for many years. But they finally came to see that sometimes the visual interpretations of Christ’s story deepened their faith and understanding of the story.

Today many Christians follow these 14 stations especially during the Lenten season. And so, like those other pilgrims, I ask you to join me as we stand beside these stops to the Cross and ponder their mystery. Hopefully through these meditations we will be drawn closer to the Lord and to our faith.

There are a multitude of artistic renderings of the Stations. I discovered the particular tributes to the Stations from an African artist. My masthead for the Lenten season portrays his first station. Bruce Onobrakpeya was born in Nigeria in 1932. Hs first exposure to art came from his father who was a competent sculptor and carved many wooden figures of traditional religious deities. Early in elementary school his son, Bruce developed an interest in engraving. As his interest grew he traveled north in 1957 to Zaire where he studied at the Nigerian College of Technology.

The artist was first introduced to the technique of intaglio at a printmaking workshop led by an artist from Holland. So Bruce turned from oils and drawing and lino cuts to etching. The surroundings and experiences of Onobrakpeya’s childhood made a lasting impression on his future work. The dense vegetation and fertile soil of his hometown is repeated in his prints. The prints we will follow are rich in vivid colors and magical imagery which combines Bruce’s Christian faith with his Urhobo culture.

His work can be found in many countries. He is primarily responsible for the renaissance of contemporary art in Nigeria. He became a pioneer in printmaking and elevated this technique to a level of a major art form.

I first saw prints of these powerful Stations at the First Baptist Church, Aiken, South Carolina. They were given to the church by George A. Naifeh who was formerly a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service. My thanks to the Pastor, Fred Andrea and his associate and my good friend James Bennett for providing these prints for our use.

The artist is now 80 years old. His thirty-year career has taken him to many countries in the Middle East especially. And his work can be seen in art galleries and museums all over the world. My hope is that as you ponder these interpretations you will come closer to the power and wonder of the Way of the Cross—the Via Dolorosa.

Let us begin the Journey which will finally lead to the Cross.