Thursday, August 29, 2013

Preacher Talk--Sorta

Every once in a while I read something so good that I mutter: "I wish I'd said that." Marion Aldridge has been a friend and colleague for many years. I have watched him in many different settings. Friend, Father, Husband, Pastor, Denominational leader, sorta retired now...but fine writer on many subjects. His blog "Where the Pavement Ends" is fine and certainly worth reading.

I recommend his last piece at being a Pastor- Preacher type. All of us that bear the mantle--and sometimes like other jobs-- know it gets a mite heavy. What a lot of people don't realize is that though what we do is a calling (and I hope theirs is too) ours also is a job with accompanying joys and headaches--sometimes the former and often the latter.

I've been part of a great organization called Ministry to Ministers which enables clergy in trouble to get help and hope. (In our retreats we have heard about every story you can think of. Sometimes churches do terrible things to the ministers that work for them. And sometimes troubled minister do terrible things to congregations. If you know some Minister that is hurting--have him contact our organization. Over 1,000 have been part of our retreats. Many of these have found life after termination or serious personal problems.

But looking back over my shoulder I have (mostly) enjoyed the churches and the people that came trailing in week after week (well, not every week)--when they didn't have to come at all. And I have a heartfull of stories of people I have met and loved who have been brave soldiers despite the hard, hard things that life has thrown at them. I still believe in church after all these years. Oh, I know we really do have the treasure in earthen vessels and our track record with social justice and other issues does leave a lot to  be desired. But the love and sensitivity I have experienced and witnessed from all those people who toted in their casseroles and prayed for their friends and cried at their funerals take my breath away.  Atheists have no unearthly idea how much love flows out in the lives of many people because of church.

They don't pay me to do this anymore. But on Sundays when I have to miss--I still feel like something is missing in my week. I heard old, wonderful, distinguished George Buttrick then in his 80's--say one evening, "Despite it all--I am proud to be member of this club called clergy." I now know what the meant. I thank
( but do not blame)  Marion Aldridge for this rant. And when you see your preacher just remember he or she is just like you. We're all in the same boat. Fellow-strugglers trying to find the way. Let's just give each other a break. God knows we all need one.

The distinguished (ho ho) looking group at the top are some of my buddies. Without colleagues--I don't know what we would have done.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dr. King and the Dream

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.    

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow."
--Langston Hughes,  "Dreams"

As we turn toward Washington on Wednesday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We probably wouldn't be celebrating as we will without that monumental Dream speech--that Martin Luther King gave on that hinge-turning day.

I stood at the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington. Huge and awe-inspiring the sculptured piece is a wonder to see. But what I remember about that day were the black folk that stood looking up. The little black boys and girls that wanted their picture taken on that very spot. Dr. King gave them and us hope again. He threw out the challenge to all to live up to the high principles that we say we believe. Somewhere he said, "Until all of us are free...none of us are really free." And he was right.

We name streets after him in almost every city. It is a shame that in many of these places they run right through the seamiest parts of town. But maybe that is not all bad--perhaps someone living in a not-so-nice place will look up at that street sign and maybe connect the dots: if  Dr. King could do that--maybe, just maybe I can too. Hope.

Such dreams do not come without a very great price. President Lincoln was shot as the war ended--and he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And then there is that long, long line of martyrs who gave their lives for this great cause of freedom through the years.

Let's not forget all the heroes  in the civil rights movement of our time were not black. Hundreds of Pastors lost their jobs because they would not send Deacons to turn away the wrong kind of folk on Sunday. People were shot and hanged and driven out of town because they dared to stand up for this cause. Many children and adults lived in utter terror.

Living in Birmingham where there a story about justice on almost every corner--I preached at the 16th Street Church where one terrible Sunday morning four little black girls at Sunday School were killed when a bomb went off. As I preached in that special place years later I looked up at the window the children of Wales provided to say to their brothers and sisters we stand with you...we love you...and we give you this window--the centerpiece in the church--as a holy reminder of terror and grace, too. The artist has given us a black Jesus with his hands outstretched and underneath are the shining words: "You Do It Unto Me..."

A friend of mine took me to the Gethsemani Monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky last year, too. He wanted to show me a special memorial We walked and walked through the woods until we came to this holy spot. At first some sculptor had fashioned the story of the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemani. And then you move up the hill and you see this life-size stature that takes your breath away. Jesus prays alone in that Garden while his disciples sleep. These pieces were give to honor not a black man but a young white theological student. Jonathan M. Daniels was an Episcopal Seminarian who went to Alabama to stand with his brothers and sisters in need. He was murdered in Alabama August 20, 1965. He is one of hundreds, thousands who gave
their lives to this important cause.

As the people gather Wednesday to remember that day fifty years ago--I hope our President sees the multitude. I hope he remembers that hard, hard times that Martin Luther King endured. There are cries today for the impeachment of our President. Even though these pronouncements get nowhere--they must hurt. And then the ugliness and hatred that the simple fact of his Presidency has shown us we really do have a long way to go after all these years.

Another photo and my reverie ends for a spell. On the street where my son lives in Philadelphia it is a mixed neighborhood. Some of the homes are being gentrified. But many still are filled with people on welfare, black folk who never were able to get too far. Walking down the street on the eve of President Obama's second try for the Whit House I noticed a door. Not a very nice house really. But on their door were words that I wish our President could see. By his very presence he gives hope to a multitude of people who some days think there is little hope in this vast, rich country for them.

We have a long way to go. But lest we despair--let us remember how far we have come. Progress is exceedingly slow. Much to slow. But looking back on these last fifty years from the Day Dr.King told us about the dream--my, my so much of what he said that day has become a reality.

(  You might enjoy reading Joshua Dubois'  "Free at Last" piece that is found in the online edition of Newsweek. It gives me hope. )

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Flag and the Bible

"When there's doubt, there's more considered faith. Likewise, when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed. For Christians to render everything to Caesar--their minds, their consciences--is to become evangelical nationalists. That's not a distortion of the gospel: it's desertion. 

It is wonderful to love one's country,  but faith is for God. National unity too is wonderful--but not in cruelty and folly."
           --William Sloane  Coffin, in Credo

A friend of mine told me a funny-not-so-funny- story that happened in another friend’s church. It must have been Vacation Bible School and the church always used the flags in that service. After Bible school as people were cleaning up, they put the flags in a closet. The next Sunday people looked around the Sanctuary they were furious. “Where’s the Flag?” “Where is the flag?” The poor Pastor was stumped like everyone else. This hoop-la went on for weeks. On the Communion Table in that church was a huge Open Bible. One day the Pastor took the Bible and quietly placed it in his office. People continued to moan: “Where’s the flag?” Months later he told the church that, “You have complained continually about the missing flag—which we have found and put back in the sanctuary.  Six months ago I took the Bible off the Communion Table and put it in my office and nobody here has said a single word.” Hmm...

Friday, August 23, 2013

School Starting Takes Me Back

 The old ritual is beginning for another year. The cars, trucks and SUV’s and even a few moving vans are parked in single file outside the apartment complex or dorm. Parent-types seem to be everywhere. They begin to haul TV’s, water skis and computers as big as televisions into the dorm. There are clothes and clogs and suitcases filled with all sorts of finery. Then come the pillows and bed linens and quilts and blankets. Someone drags in a rug and two people carry a huge chair. There are boxes of DVD'S and small refrigerators, hairdryers and curling irons. There are tennis rackets and plastic bags of junk food. I've even seen some of their cars arriving dragging boats behind them. Boats to school? Back in the dorm and apartment most the Mothers are pointing to what goes where while the Daddies either direct traffic or carry bundle after bundle inside. Many of the students just stand around greeting each other, texting or listening to their ipods. It’s that time of the year when the old ritual from home to school takes place once again..

 Sixty years ago my own college journey began when a friend picked me up in front of my house. All my treasures were neatly fitted into a footlocker. It was heavy, but I hauled it out to his car. We shuffled boxes and suitcases around in the trunk and made room for my belongings. It was early and the Georgia morning was still cool. My Mother had left her job at the mill and come across the street to see me off. On our front porch my mother stood with her little apron, her printed dress and her hairnet to keep the cotton at bay. She didn’t leave the porch—she didn’t want me to see her cry. I threw her a kiss and got into my friend’s car.

At the time, I did not realize how hard that day was for her. Sending her oldest out of the nest into the great big world. When I took my own daughter to college and left her there waving goodbye, I felt what my mother must have felt back there standing on her porch. My mother had only finished the eighth grade. She was very proud since I was the first in our family to go to college. But she already knew what it took me years to discover. A door was closing and another opening. I was leaving home really never to be the boy with a bedroom right off the living room. She let me go that September morning. She simply stayed on the porch, waved goodbye and held back her tears.

Every week without fail in my school mailbox there would be a letter in her handwriting and a crumpled ten-dollar bill and a five. This would be my allowance for the week.

And so as school takes up and the SUV’s and cars line the campus—the memories come back. I remember a mother who stood on our porch the morning I left home.  I remember the enormous sacrifice that fifteen dollars meant that came faithfully. She was willing to send me away to experience what she had never had a chance to discover.

The goods that move into those apartment or dorm rooms today are a far cry from that footlocker that held my belongings. But the feelings of these fathers and mothers surely have a universal ring. With heavy hearts, holding back the tears they, too, will let their son or daughter go. After the room is straightened up, the curtains are hung and the mother has made the bed, she and her husband will get into their empty vehicle and head home. In the silence they will know what their Sally or Junior will not know for years and years. Life will be different. Rooms at home will be quiet. The old stairs will not shake as they did when the kids ran up and down the steps. And every night just before sleep comes that Mother and Father will see a face and whisper a prayer.

(This memory was published the first August of my blog. I reprint it today for those who might have missed it.)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"The Butler"--Telling It Slant.

Emily Dickson’s famous line, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” could have had the film “The Butler” in mind. I didn’t know very much about this movie when I found my way to my seat in that darkened theatre. But I was in for a surprise. Before our eyes there unfolded really a mini-history of the civil rights movement in our time. Having lived through those pre-integration days in Georgia—I felt being pulled back into a story—much of which I had forgotten. I went to an all-white public school(s)—I went to a lily-white Baptist Church—I traveled to Birmingham to an all-white college. The only black faces we saw were Rivers the old janitor and the black woman who cleaned our dorm.

Down in Montgomery just a hundred miles away history was breaking open a whole new chapter in all our lives. But during the Bus Boycotts, the Freedom rides, the bombing of Dr. King’s house in Birmingham I was mostly ignorant. I was busy learning how to be cool smoking cigarettes, looking for girls and hoping to pass my subjects. I do remember picking up a copy of Stride Toward Freedom where Martin Luther King told of the Bus Boycotts. I do remember the first black person I ever met on an equal level way up in New Jersey where I worked as a camp counselor. I remember thinking he seemed just like us. We could even kid him about his blackness and he could kid us about our Alabama whiteness. We stood on equal footing and I was pleasantly surprised.

 But civil rights did not really sink it until years ago when I began to see injustice on every corner of this country. I knew so little about the wonderful black woman who kept my brother and me and had to leave her seven children at home. I never wondered why Shine, our aging shoeshine boy didn’t get another job. Nor did I know that across the street in the mill the black faces could only clean toilets and sweep under the looms—never coming close to what the white workers made—and that was a pittance itself.

But slowly my eyes were opened. At Seminary I did hear the great King speak one morning in our chapel. The President was almost fired for that invitation. But I still remember something big and important began to dawn on me when Dr. King said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” I shook his hand that morning. And every time I heard him speak I always felt like I had to get up and do something. And so when I was called to my first church I preached about justice knowing full well there was not a black face within ten miles of my rural church in Western Kentucky.

And so when I saw this remarkable film, “The Butler” last week it took me back, way back. Lee Daniel’s the Director told this moving story slant. We look through the eyes of a black little boy in the South who grew up under the terror and violence that so many black folk faced then. This black man grew up and finally landed a job as a White House butler in 1957 (Which was the year I finished college.) He served eight Presidents over three decades. Forest Whitaker is marvelous in his part as the Butler. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife in a fine understated way. Why, I forget she was Oprah. But the film grabs us by the heart and leads us through that turbulent time through the life of the Butler and his family. I won’t spoil the movie for you. But I would say I recommend this film to everybody. Young folk would learn a lot about the early days of the movement. Older folk will be reminded of all sorts of things we forgot.

I appreciate Mr. Daniel’s and his crew in making this splendid movie. As the film ended and we sat there in the darkness I felt myself wiping away the tears. Tears that recalled injustice—tears of thanksgiving for how far we have come. Tears for how far we still need to go.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Compass--That Helps Me Find the Way

I don’t know when it started. Maybe it was the time I heard Ernie Campbell, once Pastor of the Riverside Church—say in an off-hand way that every Preacher should keep a little notebook and jot down sayings, experiences and quotes. These could be used for fodder for sermons, he said. What I have discovered after doing this practice for years—is that these tiny quotes and words have become a compass for me. Instead of material for sermons—they are notes for my heart.

A compass points you in the right direction. And these quotes have lifted me up sometimes, set me to traveling down avenues I never would have gone. I might even call them the lifeline of my spirit. In this world of so much noise we all need some quiet moments when we ponder the mystery that is all around us. This is what these quotes have done for me. And so I thought I might share some of these with you. Maybe they might just help somebody else out there looking for a needed word.

“Thou didst in our darkest hour rend the clouds and show thy light.”
            --Saint Thomas Aquinas

“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is to try to put myself in the path of it’s beam.”
            --Annie Dillard

“I have traveled from love to hate, and partway back again.”   
           --William Stafford

“Welcome everything. Welcome alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to the places ‘round the Christmas fire, where ‘what is’ sits open-hearted.”
                --Charles Dickens

“Though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.”
            --Psalm 37.24

“One kind word can warm three winter months.”
            --Japanese saying

“Blessed be the Lord for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.”
            --Psalm 28.6a

Once in discussing death Dr. Koyama recalled the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He said Jesus would be the same way today. “Looking into our eyes and heart, Jesus will say: ‘You’ve had a difficult journey. You must be tired and dirty. Let me wash your feet. The banquet’s ready.”
            --Kosuke Koyama

“The healing of our wounds is forgiveness.”
            --Alice Walker, poem about her Father’s death.

“I shut my eyes in order to see.”

“You didn’t get the world second-hand.”

“When we lose a sense of the possible we lose it fast.”
            --Joan Didion, Blue Nights

“In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”
            --Eleanor of Acquitaine, character in A Lion in Winter

These are probably enough quotes for today. From time to time I may just share some of my favorites with you. 


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Backpacks and Jesus

What do Backpacks have to do with Jesus? Good question. Churches all over are beginning to recognize that all children that start to school will not have Backpacks or School supplies. And so Churches are making a plea for their members to make sure that every child will have what they need when school starts. May their tribe increase.

Starting school these days is expensive. There seem to be fees on top of fees. And those with limited income, single parents or those with a multitude of problems are trying to figure out where the money for all these expenses will come from. And when every Johnny and Suzie walk in the door and sit down at a desk—none of them should feel left out or picked on because they don’t have what other kids have. School should be the great leveler. Everybody ought to have a chance at a good education and not be ashamed or embarrassed because they do not have the pencils, paper or whatever that the child next to them has in abundance.

Old timers like myself can remember the good old days. Some of them were actually good. We lived in Georgia—not exactly the finest school systems in the country in the early fifties. I went to a school in a cotton-mill village with kids like myself—all our parents worked in the mill. But even then there were kids that we snickered about and made fun of and must have found those days unbearable. Children then and now can be cruel. But when we sat down at our desks and the teacher passed out the pencils and tablets and construction paper and whatever else it was we all needed—these were provided by the school system. Even then.

I know, I know that inflation hit. I know the economy took a tailspin. I know that schools everywhere are, like parents, wondering where the money will come from for this school year. Statistics say that with this wonderful sequester idea—classrooms will be packed with more children in every room. Support staffs have been pared down. And children whose only good meal for the day comes at the school—are going home hungry.

Meanwhile in Washington we hear the whines from the politicians that represent their well-heeled constituents. No wonder they want vouchers and money for private schools. I don’t know a better way to dry up the public school system. They talk about poor teachers and lousy administrators. Sure there are some crummy teachers and some principals are mediocre. But most of those that teach care about their children and they work hard and do the best they can.

 I am very proud of those churches that are beginning to provide school supplies to those who can’t afford them. I think Jesus smiles at this effort. The future generations will depend on those who sit in first grade and other grades this year. Dear God—I hope they have a chance to see some windows and doors they never dreamed open. I hope they begin to feel—poor or not—that they have worth and they are somebody. And I hope morning after morning when they put on their clothes and head out they will not grit their teeth or dread the day.

 Maybe we in the church ought to remember that once upon a time Jesus called for the little children to come to him. Those in the crowd thought that very strange. Children had almost no rights at all. But Jesus picked up maybe one or two children and told spoke to all those standing with pursed lips and folded arms. He said that whoever harmed these little ones—it would be better if someone placed a millstone around their necks and cast them into the sea. But, but, but—the grown-folk there protested. Jesus simply kissed those two children, put them and let them go. I thought about that story as I thought about  those needed backpacks and those that still stand with pursed lips and folded arms. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Guantanamo and John Grisham

"Whereas economic power helped eventually to win World War II, the war against terrorism will finally only be won by economic justice. There is nothing metaphysical about terrorism. It springs from specific historical causes--political oppression and economic deprivation. Until these injustices and our complicity in their furtherance are faced, our escalating counter violence will predictably result in more and more terrorists attacking more and more American institutions at home and abroad."
   --William Sloane Coffin, in Credo

John Grisham is a hero of mine. A hero because he can write like he can write. A hero because, unlike most popular novelists, he has taken on some hard projects: capital punishment poverty and injustice in the legal system and other issues. A hero because though he has made millions he has given generously to good causes. In his latest article in The New York Times he aims his gun toward Guantanamo. His books have been banned there. Strange, isn’t it. John Grisham? But his article is about the injustice that we just keep repeating in Guantanamo. We have yet to prove that many of those still incarcerated are really guilty. President Obama promised in his first term to close this terrible place. Caught by many things and many issues—the Prison which does not represent even the worst of what we are as a country—the President has not been able to keep his promise. But our President still has two years to make good on what he said. Read Grisham’s article—it will move you and nudge you to remember that terrible place that we don’t think of very often. The men still locked in cages know all too well. Their families who have not seen or heard of them in ten-eleven years have not forgotten.  Neither should we.

Friday, August 9, 2013

PayDay Loans--Ripping Off the Least of These

"Divide the world into 'mine' and 'not mine' and unreal standards are set up: claims and cravings begin to fret the mind. We are slaves of our own property. We drag with us not a treasure, but a chain."
    --Evelyn Underhill
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"We are a country run by the rich, for the rich."
      --Financial blogger,  Felix Salmon

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"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be."
      -- Deuteronomy 15.7-8

One of my most painful memories as a child was waking up to hear beating on our front door. It went on and on. Finally, my Father answered the door. The man on the other side started yelling. He called my Father terrible names. “When are you gonna pay this loan off? You owe me money. If you don’t pay soon I’m going to garnishee your wages or take you to court. You got that?” The door closed and there was silence.  My father gambled sometimes across the river in Phenix City, Alabama. He won just enough to keep him coming back. And then he lost and lost. He was over his head. And the interest kept multiplying. Only when a relative reluctantly came to his rescue was the problem resolved. But I remember the stooped shoulders and the shame in my father’s face.

Is it any wonder that my blood pressure goes up when I see sign after sign reading: Pay-Day Loans. They often promise quick money without credit checks. Many of these loans are easy to negotiate online. Some say no interest for the first thirty days. Pay Day Loans began to crop up in the 1990’s. Since then the payday lending industry has over 22,000 locations which loan out an estimated $27 billion dollars annually.

These loans do provide a service for people who need cash fast when their paychecks don’t stretch to the end of the week or month. In this hard time of economic downturn many Americans are turning to these institutions for help. The lenders say they are providing a service to the elderly and the working poor by lending to high-risk borrowers who might otherwise be unable to obtain a loan.

Then what is wrong with these loans? The problem comes that most of these folk have little or no savings. They fall behind on their payments and become victim to unbelievably high interest rates.  Many of them have failed to read the small print. The average borrower will pay $475.73 in finance charges to borrow $366.94 in less than 4 and half months. If this is stretched out the way the payday loan debt compounds, the average borrower will incur $2,492 in debt in a single year. Horror stories abound. A retired military veteran in Texas took out a $4,000 against his pickup truck to help his daughter get started into adulthood. The penalty for not paying off that loan on time was $1200 a month which did not reduce the principle on the loan. This man could pay $1200 a month forever and never pay off this loan.

A 39 year-old mother of five who works as a restaurant cashier borrowed $200.00 recently when she could not pay her electric bill. It took her six months to repay the $200.00 and by then she had accrued $510.00 in interest and fees. This story could be repeated again and again.

62% of the loans issued by these companies will be refinanced. The yearly interest rate (APR) for a conventional loan is 6.5%. Credit card rate is approximately 19%. The Payday Loan yearly interest is 343.41% in interest alone. A former New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest Soaries recently said that he was outraged that payday loan stores offer quick money to people desperate to cover expenses. He observed that “It’s cheaper to borrow money from the Mafia than it is payday loan stores. At least the Mafia will tell you the truth—that if you don’t pay...they’ll kill you.”

Yellow Pages report that there are at least 133 of these lending companies in Greenville. The Department of Consumer Affairs in South Carolina reports that we have hundreds of payday borrowing places in the State. I asked one of the leaders there if there were many complaints from these payday loans. She laughed and said you have no idea.

The Bible and the Qu’ran and almost all religious groups speak strongly against greed and the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans. Lending money, particularly to those who can least afford it, at exorbitant rates goes counter to everything Jesus ever taught. Yet little has been done to change these .
practices. Predatory lenders spend millions of dollars to lobbyists to make sure they can continue to operate
Some efforts have been made to rectify these dishonest practices. Congress, responding to complaints that military personnel were targets of predatory lenders imposed a limit of 36% annual interest of loans to military families. But this new law has little impact on all the other folk caught in a bind.

What can we do? Marv Knox, Editor of The Baptist Standard offers some positive suggestions. Some of these lending institutions are reliable--many are not. Check carefully. Legislators and other citizens can document the facts concerning the harm done by these exorbitant lending practices. Lawmakers need to be aware of the harm done in their districts by these unfair practices. Several states, town and counties have already enacted ordinances and laws that curtail payday lending. Jesus did say that inasmuch as do it unto the least of these--we do it unto him. Reckon this has anything to do with 300-500% interest rates?

(Want to know more about this deals with this problem; also see;


Friday, August 2, 2013

Someone's Grieving, Lord


"It would not help the boy
who, listing wishes with a red 
has only one, and writes,
'I wish she could come back to
        --Mary Kratt

I'm beginning a Grief Group next week and I've been thinking a lot about the folk who have lost someone they love.

They'll come from all over. Some will be retired Professors, Contractors, widows, a woman who lost her father and husband within four weeks. The couple who carried their baby to full term and now don't know what to do with the shower presents. Some were hard livers and some had never finished high school. But it did not matter. For Grief leaps over all the socio-economic barriers and takes them all in. And as they share and weep and show pictures of the loved one they lost--they find a new family out there who understands, who will call them after the group ends and who will know they are not alone as they walk through the lonesome valley.

Christopher Reid said of his loved one: "Dying--tougher work than playing an oboe..."

And somewhere I read where William Meredith wrote: "Everything gets watered sooner or later with tears..."

In 1947 these words appeared in a Charleston, SC newspaper."Not until trouble and heartache and sorrow came into my own life could I fully comprehend the words of Iran McLaren: "Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle." 

Mary Oliver may say it best. "Someone I loved once gave me as box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was as gift."

And maybe this is why, week after week , I sit it that circle of grievers. I keep hanging on to that marvelous Scripture: "Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Dear God--I hope so. For them and for me.

Hope in the Dog Days of Summer - 11th Sunday After Pentecost

"What keeps us from falling down, our faces to the ground, ashamed, ashamed?"
  --Mary Oliver, On reading the newspaper

Isaiah wrote to his people at a time when the foundations were shaking. Scholars say that Isaiah 1-39 was pre-exilic. Before the exile hit. The storm clouds were gathering fast and dark. Like waiting for a hurricane which is on the horizon. God’s chosen were afraid of what the future might hold. Rightly so. Before long the Northern Kingdom would be annexed into the Assyrian empire and Judah would find themselves as a tributary to the cursed Assyrians. They must have wondered if this is chosen—what does not chosen look like. But in Isaiah 1-39 all that was yet to come.

What did the Prophet say in that scary time? Our lectionary text says in that very first verse of Isaiah 11: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” He continued this same theme in verse 10: “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.”  Quite an analogy. The tree had been cut down—sawed into pieces and carted away. In the spot where the tree stood there was nothing left. Or so it seemed. And Isaiah pointed his people to the stump. He knelt down on the ground and said: “See.” Tiny. Fragile. But green and alive. A tender shoot. And in that little almost- missed sprig Isaiah gave his people hope.

I remember Frederick Buechner saying that if Paul were writing today he would say: What remains is faith, hope and love--but the greatest of these is hope. I think he is right. All around us people need hope. The country certainly needs hope. And beyond our borders hope has almost disappeared. Homeless, starving, living in terrible conditions. Thirty years of war. Every day my mailbox is filled with envelopes pleading for money for a variety of causes. They simply point out that the fact that the needs out there are great.

So in a seemingly hopeless time—the Prophet offered hope.  Could this be a good and needed word for somebody sitting there literally holding on by their fingernails. We all know them and sometimes we just do not know what to say. But we all need to remember that tiny shoot—fragile yet green.

I love the way Barbara Kingsolver puts it in her book, Animal Dreams. “Here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do is your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallways and touching the walls on both sides. I can’t tell you how good it feels.” Reckon Ms. Kingsolver had been reading Isaiah?