Thursday, March 27, 2014

Station Seven: Jesus Falls a Second Time

photo by contemplative imagining/ flickr
"Is it possible that he who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for the sake of us all
 will not grant us all things besides?"
   --Romans 8.32

When the Church finally sorted out the Stations for holy use—they chose three Stations to tell of Jesus falling. It seems almost too much. Our Lord, the Savior of the world,  falling again and again.

I think the Church knew that fallings are part of every journey. Remember John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress?  Christian is on his way to the place of beauty and delight. But he fell into the Slough of Despond—and he was afraid that he would drown there. It really was a terrible place to fall.

Most of us have known that Slough if we are honest. We stumbled into a dark wood. We failed—maybe from reaching too far. Perhaps we just tripped along the way.

Sometimes we are crushed by life. Cancer. Automobile accidents. Going into your 21 year old’s room to call her to breakfast and find her dead. She has taken her life. No warning. No note. Or you reach out year after year to a child who has turned away and nothing you can do will bring him back. And you feel like a failure. Life just tumbles in and everything seems hopeless. That’s the Slough of Despond.

So some of us give in or give up. We can’t take it anymore. And this is certainly understandable. Like that man who lay by the pool for 38 years hoping to find a way to get in the troubled waters. Somebody always pushed him away and got there first.

It is the dark side of life, this Station. And I think we need this second falling. For here, once again, this man of sorrows and acquainted with grief is one with us all. He always loved the broken ones. He reached out to the disgraced and despised ones. His great heart had room for those crushed by the systems the world erects. The poor...the Samaritans...even the Publicans and the Centurions. He reached out to the adulteress and the lepers who lived outside the gates. Whoever had a need so great that life just stopped. Jesus cared for all of these.

And it hardly mattered if was the physically broken, the emotionally shattered...the alcoholic or the drug addict or the financially disgraced. This Station reminds us that he is with all of us broken ones who wish life could be different than it turned out.

Maybe the Church put this second falling in to remind us that even the crushed can get up. Even the despairing and those outside the system are not lost. Grief might just find a healing.  Who knows—we, too might just find strength and hope and maybe even faith in the broken places of our lives. Christian in Bunyan’s story did not drown in the Slough of Despond. Someone called Help reached down and lifted him out. I think I know his name, don’t you. It is the one who on his own twisting, winding way fell and wondered if he could go on.

Maybe God can still write straight with we fallen...broken...crooked sticks. No wonder the Church gave us this Station at mid-point in the journey. For not only is it Jesus’ story—but it is our story too.


Open Letter from Fred Phelps' Son

 photo by holeephuk / flickr

Below is the letter that Fred Phelps' son wrote after his father's death. They had a long and turbulent relationship. Here are his words.

The website Recovering From Religion has issued a press release sharing Nathan Phelps' statement on the death of his father, Fred Phelps.
“Fred Phelps is now the past. The present and the future are for the living. Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on, not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share. I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been. I deeply mourn the grief and pain felt by my family members denied their right to visit him in his final days. They deserved the right to finally have closure to decades of rejection, and that was stolen from them.
Even more, I mourn the ongoing injustices against the LGBT community, the unfortunate target of his 23 year campaign of hate. His life impacted many outside the walls of the WBC compound, uniting us across all spectrums of orientation and belief as we realized our strength lies in our commonalities, and not our differences. How many times have communities risen up together in a united wall against the harassment of my family? Differences have been set aside for that cause, tremendous and loving joint efforts mobilized within hours…and because of that, I ask this of everyone – let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.
The lessons of my father were not unique to him, nor will this be the last we hear of his words, which are echoed from pulpits as close as other churches in Topeka, Kansas, where WBC headquarters remain, and as far away as Uganda. Let’s end the support of hateful and divisive teachings describing the LGBT community as “less than,” “sinful,” or “abnormal.”  Embrace the LGBT community as our equals, our true brothers and sisters, by promoting equal rights for everyone, without exception. My father was a man of action, and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Women--Are They Equal With Men?

flickr photo

David Platt, Pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama recently told those at Southern Seminary that women and men have different roles in the church. We all know this. But he means that wives are to be subjected to the submission of their husbands. He says that the Biblical standard runs counter to the current focus on feminism in our culture. What about the culture in Iraq and Afghanistan today which was the kind of world Jesus grew up in? And what about those poor “daughters of Jerusalem” that never did find a husband then or now. What are they supposed to do since they have no man to tell them what to do. 

I thought even fundamentalists were further along than this. What message do we send to all the little girls in church when women are regulated to a role which is less in importance than men. Remember the old prayer from Jesus time: “I thank God I was not born  a woman or a Gentile...”

The Pastor in Birmingham has ignored the dignity with which Jesus treated all...and that, of course including women—all women. The gifts that women bring to the church—ordained and unordained—have made the church through the years have been invaluable.

Anything less than full participation and equality runs counter to the highest standard we have for Biblical understanding: the prism of Jesus Christ. Looks like dear Veronica that wiped the face of Jesus was way, way out of line. 

Station Six: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

photo by rockface/flickr 
A pious woman wiped Jesus' face.
(Tradition of the Jerusalem Church.)

Veronica is the only character in the Stations who is not mentioned in the Bible. All the others’ names appear on the marquee. Not Veronica. Where she came from we do not know. Her personal history, if anyone ever knew, has faded over the centuries. But not her name. And not her deed. 

Picture the scene. Jesus staggered under his heavy load. He had already fallen once. The crowds have spat on him again and again. Soldiers kicked him and nudged him with their spears on and on up that terrible hill. And then, it is as if time stood still. From out the crowd a woman weaved her way through the mob. Nothing could stop her. Some tried, I am sure. And then she came face to face with the Roman guards. They protected their prisoner. Not from sufferings—perhaps to make sure he did not escape. All hell would have broken loose had this man called Jesus escaped. And so the soldiers made sure this crucifixion would take place as scheduled. But this woman, legend called her Veronica—pushed against the soldiers. Women were not supposed to do that. In fact, they were not supposed to be anywhere close—but back on the edge of things—out of sight and out of mind. Except of course, when men needed one for their own needs. But here she stood head held high, determined. Miraculously, the soldiers let her by. And then she saw Jesus up close. The wounds, the blood, the broken body nearly spent. She saw the eyes and the weariness that suffering brings. Spittle from a hundred mouths—ran down his face and body like a river. Time must have stood still for a moment. She took the veil from her face. Women were not supposed to do that. Unveiled in public. But she unwrapped the veil and reached out to Jesus. Did she know him? Who knows? We do not know if she was a follower or not. We only know she touched the face of Jesus, wiping away what blood and tears, perhaps, and the spittle—the parts she could reach. It must have been just a moment—but Jesus’ eyes met hers and he must have nodded or tried to smile. She knotted the veil up in her hands and the crowd parted as she turned away.

That’s all we know of this woman, Veronica. Interestingly her name means image or true icon. For in her action she reflects what we are all supposed to be as human beings. Courageous, compassionate, kind—caring for someone despite the consequences or inconveniences.

Did she make Jesus’ journey easier? Probably not. But this is not the point. She reached out and did what she could.  It wasn’t a man—Simon was forced to carry the cross. No. This was a woman, in New Testament times, who showed us what is the essence of the gospel. We keep remembering, as she reached out to Jesus, those last he gave us, “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of do it unto me.” 

We live in a strange time. We compassion-fatiguers pass by so many every day that suffer and need. Most of our churches spend most on ourselves. Yet out there in every neighborhood are the silent poor and abused and hurting—that need someone to reach out and care. Most of our sermons talk about our needs and our problems: our...our...our. Not many talk about those without insurance or those who can’t get green cards or those families split and divided by our laws. There is a new term floating around these days, “the selfies.” We take care of our selves and our own.  Listen to our pronouns. Me. Mine. Us. Ours. We.

Standing here beside this Station—we see a woman we know so little about. But we do know she risked so much to do what she could. She shames us all. For she shows us in this simple act what a human supposed to be. I hope I don’t forget this woman and I hope I remember her, again and again, when I see the least of these in the grocery store and holding up a sign or weeping down my block.

Stories galore talk about the fact that when she pulled her veil from the face of Jesus—embedded in that cloth was the tortured face she touched. That doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that she took away more than she ever gave. I think even in her old age she did not forget that day when, as a young woman, she dared to do what nobody else did. Is that what Jesus meant when he said: Follow me?    

Compassionatebloggers / fllickr

Station 5: Simon Carries Jesus' Cross

photo by Eleisabelle/flickr
"As they led him away, they laid hold of one Simon the Cyrenean who was coming in from the fields. They put a crossbeam on Simon's shoulder for him to carry along behind Jesus."
    --Luke 23. 26

 We don’t remember the soldiers. Pilate is only named because he is a bit player in the Jesus story. We don’t remember that crowd that watched him on his via dolorosa—his way of sorrows. Only Veronica and the daughters of Jerusalem, Jesus’ mother and of course, Simon. All the rest have faded from history.

What we do remember in Simon carrying Jesus’ cross. Not because of what this man said. We have no record of his words, if any. We remember what he did.

The Scriptures say he was compelled to shoulder the cross. Never mind. What sticks in our mind is that Simon shared in Jesus’ suffering. He helped shoulder the load. What he did mattered.

What do we remember? The teacher in Junior High that said, “Have you thought about going to college?” Or that Scout leader who taught you to swim. The brother that taught you to drive. That crumpled fifteen dollars your mother sent week after week from her little paycheck when you were in college. The Doctor who made house calls when your daughter was very sick. The teacher who taught your little boy year after patient year and flew all the way to Chicago to see him graduate. The little handful—you still can call their names after all these years—of those who drove 200 miles to stand beside you at your mother’s grave. The Nurse that stayed all night when your wife was so, so sick. The Counselor who told you in a hard time: “You’re gonna make it.” Or that church member who came when all was dark and said, “I believe in you.” We all have a multitude in our balconies. They have stood by and whispered words of encouragement, and shouldered our loads, and cheered us on—and made a difference. No wonder we remember.

And so the church sorted out the stories and decided what would go into the good news. It is no wonder that along that dark road that they wrote Simon’s name in large letters. It was their way of saying God wants to be helped. In that last parable they must have remembered what Jesus said, “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of do it to me.”  And so we stand by this Fifth Station and we remember Simon. And standing here is it any wonder we remember our own Simons?

photo by compassionbloggers/flickr



Monday, March 24, 2014

A Place Called Hope

photo by Cody  Rapal   
My writing-colleague JL Strickland responded to my blog piece about     winter not being the last chapter
with these moving words. Thanks JL.                

Having buried two of my children, I can attest that the green of spring always returns, life-affirming and welcome as always,  but a lesser shade of green, to be sure.
My youngest son Jason didn’t talk until he was almost three years old.  We despaired of him, even though the doctors assured us there was nothing wrong, Jason was just a slow talker. The doctors said, “He’ll talk when he gets ready,” and so he finally did.  Jason went on to become a star student, a marksman with a basketball and a great husband and father, beloved by all who knew him.  
As a small, still-silent child, when Jason suffered the usual childhood ailments and fevers,  it scared him.  He would, wordlessly, climb into my lap for comfort and snuggle against me, beating heart to beating heart.  The sorrow came later when I could no longer hold him until he was well. The not being able to embrace a lost child is the hard part. And the loss of the comfort and exchange of the wordless love that human touch creates for both parties, the giver and the receiver.  
But, I am convinced that the human heart, though wounded, is the most resilient living thing we are likely to see in this world.  We have to be strong to survive and complete our journey.  It is not easy, but it can be done – if you work at it.
(JL Strickland can be reached at his email:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Station 4 : Jesus Meets His Mother

photo by contemplative imaging
"Near the cross of Jesus...there stood his mother."
   --John 19.25

Nothing is harder than to be helpless—
To simply stand and watch.
Hands tied, heart broken—no words come.
   No words.

Tears stream down her face—
But she is there. Good mothers are always there.
In hospital corridors...
Beside the plate-glass window of some prison...
Weeping over the tiny box of her stillborn...
She holds them close, her children—protecting them from
  abuse and foreclosures, unpaid bills--the harshness of life.

Her being there even through the pain—
 His and her’s—must have helped.
They always helps—these mothers.

William Muehl told the story.
A mother and father stood in the lobby of the nursery school.
They waited with the others to claim their child for Christmas break.
Their little boy came running out—
  holding a brightly wrapped surprise package.
He had worked hard on their present for weeks.
Trying to run, put on his coat and wave, holding his present—
he slipped and fell.
The present broke with a crash.
The child was dumbfounded.
He let out a wail deep and sorrowful.
The father ran to him, knelt and said,
“It doesn’t matter, son. It doesn’t matter.”
The mother ran forward, reaching her hands around her boy.
She said, “Oh, but it does matters a great deal.”

Mary stood in that crowd as Jesus staggered by.
She was there.
It mattered, it mattered a great deal.
It still does—this Fourth Station of the Cross.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Winter Does Not Have the Last Word

Was The Grass Really Ever  Green?    

“Was the grass really ever green
Were the sounds of birds really clearly heard
And did we picnic in the park only six months ago
Here in midwinter they seem so far away
The naked trees, the laden skies seems always to have been
And seem out ahead for all time
Were things really ever green
And will spring come back again?

Yes, the spring will return
The gray, dull days of cold will pass
The routine now imprisoning us will be broken up
Anew excitement will be awakened by new possibilities
The despair which now engulfs us will subside
A word of hope will come to us
Our presumption that all is lost
  will be replaced by a renewed expectancy
Future will become a possibility again
The crush of demands will not dominate us forever
Out of liberation we will learn to choose
And in our choices to be secure.

The sadness now weighing upon us will be lifted
Joy will speak her acknowledgment of grief
  and will sound her call to us
The cause of sadness will not have vanished
But joy will come in spite of it
We will laugh again
We will sing and dance
We will celebrate the life now given to us.

The conflicts now engaging our energy
   will be worked through
No wind will sweep them from us
We will go through them
And we will survive
Redemption will come of our transactions
Relationships will be rescued and restored
And where breaks are too deep to be one,
Healing will come in time, though apart
The tensions tearing at our being will be resolved
We will not be destroyed.

Were things really ever green
And will the spring come back again
Yes, yes as sure as e’re it were here
Yes, yes, assure as winter’s here
Yes, yes, as sure as God is
The spring will return
And it will be green again.
   --G. Temp Sparkman

(I have given this poem to members of my Grief Group. I think it offers hope in a very hard time. It was written by a father after the loss of her daughter with leukemia.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Station Three: Jesus Falls

I am unsure why they finally settled on 14 Stations of the Cross.  But processions were formed, the faithful moved from image to image. Through primitive pictures and glorious carvings and etchings--they told the story from Pilate’s court all the way to dark Saturday. At each station prayers were said, hymns were often sung; periods of silence were almost always observed. The Stations, which speak of the Passion of our Lord, are at the heart of the Christian story.*

Only one event in this sad journey is repeated. Not once—but three times. In Station 3 Jesus falls for the first time. I wonder if the church kept this scene and repeated its sadness three times to remind us that he really was a man of sorrows and acquainted with our grief.

Old-time Baptist loved to preach on once-saved-always-saved. The heresy worked its way out by saying once you “decided to follow Jesus” you were kept secure and safe. It didn’t matter what you did—beat your wife, abuse your children—be mean as hell—you had been saved and when the dust settled you were safe in the arms of Jesus. We pious Baptists loved to smack our lips and say: “The Methodists believe in falling from grace.” We Baptists didn’t believe this heresy—we just practiced it.

All this background hopefully leads us to the Third Station. Jesus fell underneath the load. If he had only been a specter or simply masquerading as a man—he would have never fallen. What kind of a God falls down and can’t get up?  But some part of the church read the story clear. Jesus fell. Just as Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and old naked drunk Noah fell off the wagon. The whole book is a record of our fallings. David hot in pursuit of Bathsheba. Solomon with so many paramours he lost his kingdom. Israel in exile. Amos and Jeremiah and all the prophets railing against a people who fell far away from what they said they believed. Simon Peter lying through his teeth. Not to speak of Judas. One of the saddest sentences in the Gospels is: “They all forsook him and fled.”

So here our Lord is one with us. Who among us has not fallen from grace more than three times? The load gets too heavy. Too much too fast crashes in on us. Death of a loved one. Illness that eats away at our lives and often our bank accounts. The dreaded Alzheimer’s. Suicide. Not to speak of the moral failures or the ethical wrongs. We fall, oh yes we fall.

And so we need to stand at this Third Station and ponder the mystery. Jesus fell under the load. Here he is as human as he will be on the cross where the pain was real and the blood was red and he cursed loud and clear. And so standing by this Station perhaps we can see him understand our failings and our wrong-headedness. We do fall as did our Savior but that is not the end of the story. Station three—we have barely started the long journey.

Elizabeth Eliot said once that the trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. We know that. And so we stand here and whisper a prayer as did another who had fell so far: “Lord, remember me...remember me.” The book says he will. Thank God for that.

*This idea came from a very fine book  by Daniel Berrigan and Margaret Parker, Stations ( Harper & Row, 1989, p. ix)


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fred Phelps--Writing His Obituary

Word has come via the internet and tweet and other sources that Fred Phelps of the ill-famed Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas is dying. I don' t know anyone in our time who has done more to set back people's understanding of church and the cause of Christ than this man. I don't know any one person who has caused more hate and anguish than this one man. He led efforts to picket funerals of dead soldiers simply because this was God's judgment on a nation that did not (officially) bash gays. He sent a group to Matthew Shepherd's funeral out West after he was murdered for being gay. It must have been hard for Matthew's parents to weep at their son's grave while supposed-Christians from Topeka spewed out hatred and glee because Matthew got what he deserved. Rev. Phelps preached a gospel that was narrow, mean-spirited and judgmental to the core. He hated just about everybody from the President on down. What are we to say about this man who left the world worse than the found it--or tried?

First, I'd remind people that Fred Phelps does not represent the church of Jesus Christ. He had only a handful of followers yet this little cluster of less than fifty people made headlines everywhere. One wonders how much damage this man and his little cluster could have done without the TV cameras and the stories that poured out from all our newsrooms. Sometimes all the news--with a little n--is not fit to print.

But back to the obituary. Brandon Wallace, a gay Southern Baptist--with a very fine blog--has written a wise article on how we respond to Phelps' demise. He says we ought to picket his funeral--but with love. He reminded me that Phelps for all his meanness still is a child of God. Instead of surrounding that gravesite with ugly posters and screaming words--we might remember the old simple gospel word: love one another. Who knows what Phelps carried in his very troubled heart. Who knows where all that venom and hatred came from. But Brandon Wallace is on to something--the Christian faith is not squishy and sentimental--the commands of our Lord are sometimes hard to bear. If we place Jesus' words down beside this old mean broken man--what would he say. Who knows? Maybe Jesus would respond as he did when he stood beside Lazarus' tomb. Jesus wept. Perhaps he weeps over this man who never, ever, it seems, understood that Jesus really does love all the children of the world.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Advice From a Failure

(I was invited back to Birmingham to speak to  a small group of ministers who had faced difficult times in their vocational life.*  Some had been dismissed. Some had just thrown in the towel in despair. Some had a hard time in letting the past go. This is what I said when I met with a group of my fellow-minister-sufferers.)

What I want to do today is to take a couple pages out of the album of my own life—hoping in doing so—you, too will take out your own album and begin to look at where you are.

After a 13-year ministry in South Carolina—my kids were grown and gone. I was 51 years old. A little bored by my work. And this Church came along in Memphis and kept telling me how great I was and how they needed my gifts especially. Such a seduction is hard to turn down. They told me they were a moderate church in a most conservative town—and there stretched out before me a challenge. So I went.

Early on—I realized their good Committee did not realize they were not as far along as they thought. There was a tiny cadre of hard-nosed conservatives that were always there. I realized early on I had made a mistake and should not have been there. What do you do you do if you wake up the morning after your wedding and realize you have married the wrong person? It was scary. Well, I put things in high gear—I would work hard—harder than I have ever worked. I would make this place I did not particularly like work.  I would wow all those hard-nosed Christians.

After a year I called the Search committee together and opened up my heart. “This thing is just not working, folks. I have tried and tried—but it’s not working.” Oh, they reassured me I was doing a good job...they were a difficult group—and told me everything would work out. So—I went back to work. We tried everything. We had consultants to come in and help us. And it never came together. So two and a half years later I resigned on a cold Sunday morning in early December without a place to go. 55 years old and scared to death.

I learned some things out of the hardest time in my vocational life. Without my wife and kids and friends scattered everywhere I would not have made it. This is what I began to discover.

You have to look hard at what is going on inside of you. Three weeks before I moved to Memphis my Mother died—and she was a very bright star in my constellation. And I packed up and left friends and a church that I loved and loved me.

But a new place. A new challenge. You put things in high gear and move on. But I did not realize that I had pigeon-hold my grief. Mother. Friends. Church. I had moved to a place where they did not even know our kids names—how could they—they were grown and gone.

You have to deal with your griefs—or your griefs will deal with you. All that frenetic activity could not replace the holes in my heart. In fairness to that church—if I had been able to deal with the griefs I did not even know were there—I think the picture would have turned out differently. I think I could have stayed but I was carrying a whole lot in my heart and I did not like what I was doing.

In fairness to me—I do think some marriages just do not work. That church and its new Pastor were poles apart. They did not understand what I frantic activity scared some of them to death...and I did not understand who they were and be patient with them. When just two or three pit bulls are biting—you don’t have the luxury of doing much but trying to get out of their way. So I left with  a heavy heart. 

photo by scootie
This is the second thing I learned. You have to forgive yourself. While I was there and when I moved to a new place about eight months later—I was hard on myself. Why didn’t I see that church as it was? Why didn’t I realize I was in the throes of my own personal grief? I have never failed in my whole ministry. Oh, we all have difficult times—but I am talking about just failing. And I beat myself up for not being able to pull it off. I was ashamed professionally. I was furious with myself for what I had done to my wife and me.

But somehow grace happened. A good wife. A fine counselor. Prayer. The love and support of kids and my friends. The open door of a new church. All these were ways that God got a foothold in my life.

And somehow I began to see that there is no such thing as perfection in our lives. There is only one Jesus. And I had to accept the fact I could not do everything. I had to come to terms with my own grief and understand my own heart. And slowly that self-hatred which I had really carried most of my life—began to fade.

We have to deal with ourselves. And what happened to me is that it saved me from self--righteousness. Like that Pharisee in the Temple—I could not thank God that I had never been through a patch of failure.

This realization has made me more human. Hopefully more humble.  I think I am not quite as hard on myself and those around me. I have joined the human family—warts and all. Theirs and mine. I have a strong sensitivity to the underdog.

Arthur Miller wrote a play, which I think, was really not about Maggie, the character as it was about tortured Marilyn Monroe he tried to be married to. And in that play he says: “There comes a time when we have to take ourselves in our own arms.” We have to forgive ourselves. 

 permission by iLoveKaylaMoore
The third thing I have learned is that I had to forgive them. Or God had to help me forgive them. Jesus prayed from the cross for his enemies: “Father forgive them.”  You have to understand some of these pit bulls. You have to come to terms with people far different than you. You have to realize that it wasn’t all their fault. I did some things that did not help.

And when I finally left there and moved to another place. Guess what? Some of those mean people moved with me. Why they were sitting out there every Sunday in my new place with scowls and slitted eyes. Not many—but they were there.
I had not forgiven those back there in Memphis...and I would have to learn to forgive other people along the way.

You see Jesus said if we don’t forgive them...God cannot forgive us. We just have to let them go. Jesus said shake the dust off your feet. He did not say smash them in the face. He just said move on. You have done all you can do. But don’t take them with you. We can’t do that.

permission by ashleigh3513
Let me tell you a story. I was leaving here on a plane for some place up north. And there was a black lady sitting next to me. And we started talking. She was going to give a speech in Charlotte. I asked her if she was a member of the 16th Street Church where the little girls were killed. I was about to speak there and wondered. After I asked that question she said, “I used to be a member there. Not anymore. My daughter was killed in that bombing. Her name was Carole—with an e.”

We struck up a friendship and I would call her and sometimes she would call me. When they caught one of the men who had bombed that church years before. She was asked to testify at the trial. They wheeled her in—she could barely walk then. But she said, “This would have been my daughter’s 30th birthday if it wasn’t for this man.” Spike Lee came to town and make a movie called, “Four Little Girls.” And the last part of that movie is this black woman, my friend. He asked her could she forgive those men for murdering her daughter. And she said, “I’ve let all that stuff go. You can’t keep all that poison in your system. It will destroy you. Life is too short—I have forgiven them.”
permission by jamaalbell1

We have to let it go...despite whatever they have done. Forgive us...forgive them.

 I have discovered another thing: Who we are is not defined by them. We cannot let others write our agenda. And we preachers do it all the time. Love me...I will jump through your hoops. I will turn cartwheels. I will sit up and beg like a dog if you will love me and accept me.

Those people cannot define who you are. And we do it all the time. God called you. Why? If you are so pathetic that you must run around trying to please, please and get strokes. It’s like nymphomania you can't ever get enough. We’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

photo by thegorten
Once at the Y MCA...I was getting out of my car after a hard day at work to try to work out the kinks. And this black man came by. Oh, I wanted to avoid him. I was sure he wanted a hand out. And I had done that all day long. As he approached me I said, “I don’t have any money.” And he said: “Mister I don’t want any money I just want you to know that I’m not crazy.” And I said, “No, you’re not crazy but you are a child of God.” And he turned and walked away. And I heard him say over and over: “Child of God...Child of God...Child of God.” Nobody in a church or anywhere define us or pronounce us certifiable. We are children of God and we need to remember this every morning when we climb out of bed.

Hang on to those old words which have helped pilgrims through the years:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; ad through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God...Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you...Do not fear, for I am with you...” (Is. 43. 1-3a, 4a, 5a)

photo by TraceTaylor

(If you would like to learn about the Ministering to Ministers Foundation which has helped hundreds of ministers is a time of vocational crisis, you might pull up their web page and learn more about this fine organization.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Station Two: Jesus Bears the Cross

I first saw this rendering of Jesus bearing the cross from a distance. I was on a side road outside Princeton, New Jersey. It was about sunset and looking across a field of tall grass I told my friend, “I think I see a cross over there.” Squinting I could only see the shadow of a crossbeam and a figure who seemed to be carrying a cross. Several times I drove down that road and always looked for the cross. Later, back of the Trinity Episcopal Church on Mercer Street in Princeton I stopped and stared. It was the sculptured piece I had seen in that field. Someone had moved the large rendering to the back of that church. A metal Jesus carried a wooden cross and the outstretched arm called all who saw to come and follow. I spent many summers on the Seminary campus there—and I always looked forward to my visit behind that church.

When we come to this Second Station of the Cross—the rigged trial is over.  Soldiers dragged him away and beat him and left his naked back in shreds. Crowds followed and spat and yelled out their hatreds. This was the setting for the prisoner Jesus to take the heavy wooden cross- beam and carry it to his place of execution.

What does this second stopping-off place mean? I think it means that here Jesus is one with us and one with all those through the years who have borne pain, suffering and injustice. He was one with the daughters of Jerusalem and all those other daughters who have carried their crosses of abuse, derision, divorce and destitution. He is one with whoever it is that has ever walked their own way of sorrows. Saying goodbye to children or other loved ones with cancer, suicide, drug overdoses, depression or the terrible Alzheimer’s. He is one with us all—this man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

Does he beckon us forward, too? To do something besides sing our hymns and read our creeds and go through the motions. To bear our own crosses—but more—perhaps he calls us to do something about all that pain up and down our streets and over in that run-down neighborhood and in that heartbreak just two doors away. To find some way to study war no more. To give those little children in Iraq or Afghanistan or Africa who have known nothing but fear and loss and hunger all their lives a hope they have never known.

This second station is our station. It goes to the heart of a very troubled world. And he who came and lived and died—stands with us still. How—I do not know. But it is always an unfinished business. And that outstretched arm still bids us to come.

I do not know all it means. I do know we still pray, "O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world have mercy on us all.” And so here we stop and ponder the mystery and see still that outstretched hand.

contributed by vieilles_annonees


Friday, March 7, 2014

Economic News Today--Good News or Bad?

February job figures were released Friday morning, March 7th. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment figures are down to 6.7%.  January’s figures were the lowest in years: 6.6%. February’s figures are not far behind: 6.7%. These are the lowest percentage since 2008. The Dow hit triple digits this week. Friday at 10:30 the Stock Market had climbed to an all-time high: 16, 484. We’ve never been here before.

My question is: why aren’t we bringing in the champagne and popping the corks? This economic news is good news—for a change. I don’t hear much celebration this morning. What’s wrong with us? Have been so mesmerized by negativity that we can’t hear a good word when it comes down the road?

I know the unemployment figure is a sad 10.5 million unemployed. Most of these thousands are desperate for work. Despite the good news about our economy—we must not forget all those who suffer.

I also know that the critics will say that these good figures are really overblown and do not tell the whole story. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lies? Seriously—a great many of us cannot accept the truth even when it is laid out with hard and fast statistics.

I know it is an election year and all those politicians out there are looking over their shoulder at the Tea Party. How can they possibly rejoice in good news when bad news sells papers and collects votes?

I love this country but somehow we are on the wrong track. Wouldn’t it be something if we could find a way to help all those out there desperate for jobs. To stand up for the poor and the disenfranchised. To come together as a people and help make our country a good place which our forebears, on their better days, dreamed. And—to celebrate the victories when they come.

One play on Broadway years ago summed it up so well: “There was a great man in that body...but somehow he got lost.” Reckon those words reflect our attitude toward good news when it comes?

--cartoon by Elijah Paul
--rogerlovette /  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Station 1- -Jesus Faces Pilate

photo by Stephen Snodgrass
Today we begin the journey that goes from Jesus' trial to the cross and dark Saturday. And  like Christians for many years we put aside whatever we are doing or not doing. We leave jobs and work and family and pain and loss and hurt and woundedness.

And so we come to these 14 Stations. Why do we do this? And why have pilgrims through the years kept doing this exercise of pain and struggle?

I do not know except here we pause and remember. And in remembering somehow it touches some of our pain, loss, hurt and simple need. This is not an escape. To stand by these Stations is anything but an escape. We find ourselves here. We find suffering here. We find in this Via Dolorosa--this way of sorrows maybe, just maybe the essence of our faith.

So here we stand at the First Station. This story must have been important--for all four Gospels tell it in their own way. After the Upper Room and the Garden of Gethsemane and arrest and beatings--Jesus is dragged before Pilate. He has not slept. He has endured their torture. And Jesus stands swaying before Pilate, the Governor.

What we have here is power and powerlessness. What we find in this scene is the establishment and the rule of law. Pilate represents Rome and authority and the way things are. But there is more here than Rome and the Governor Pilate and all they represent. Jesus stands quietly before this important official. Blood streaks down his face. His hands are bound. He is absolutely powerless. Could this possibly be the new order?

First we find the old order. The exploitative system that crucified 500 Jews many days just to underline who was in charge. Slavery was rampant. The people--especially the poor--were overtaxed and their basic needs ignored. While up on the hill behind fences and stone walls the elite lived and prospered. Sound familiar?

Pilate is nervous and testy. He does not want to be here. He does not want to deal with these despised Jews. His assignment would be like sending an ambassador to Afghanistan. They had had four Roman governors in twenty years. Nobody wanted this assignment.
from contemplative imaging

Pilate longed to be back in Rome where it was safe and life was not quite so complicated. But we do not always get our way. The Governor tried to whisk Jesus away. This was not in his job description, he muttered.  But if this decision about the Jew-Jesus turned sour Rome would not look the other way. And he would be sent further into some even worse back-water place further from Rome and safety.

Before the Governor stands Jesus. No power. Just an outsider who some really thought was the Messiah. Messiah? Blood-streaked. Helpless. Weaponless? But four Gospels tell the story that Pilate in all his trappings symbolize the old order. And standing before him--is a new order that Rome would never understand. A way of life without violence. That did not lean on the world's power. That scorned everything that seemed precious: Violence. Hatred. People pitted against people: a Prince of Peace? What kind of joke was this. A vision of a peaceable kingdom where lions and lambs would lie down together. A world where every man and woman would sit under their own fig tree and never be afraid again. The Governor thought: This is their Messiah? You've got to be kidding.

Pilate leans forward and asks the prisoner: What is truth? He is furious that this dirty Jew, who in his insolence doesn't even answer. Sometimes silence is more powerful than speech.

Look up at this Station. Pilate represents the old order. Power and war and violence and hatred. Injustice especially to all the little people--the voiceless. And the new order. Even to one's enemies. One who bids us to put down our swords and follow yet another way. Love one another--even our enemies.

We still need this first Station of the Cross. For the old order is still with us. And the new order, like those little green tendrils of spring remind us there really is another kind of kingdom. One not made with hands. A kingdom so strange and unlikely that we find wisdom and joy and life abundant that no earthly power can hold back nor ever understand.

--rogerlovette /

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stations of the Cross--We Begin

(Every Lenten season for the last several years I have been writing meditations on the Stations of the Cross. This is my way of dealing with this Holy Season. If you are interested--I ask you to join with me as we walk together these 14 Stations.)

"People get ready, there's a train a comin'
You don't need  no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'
Don't need to ticket, you just thank the Lord."
    --Lyrics from song by Curtis Mayfield

From our earliest days they called them Stations--Stations of the Cross. A station is a waiting place. It is a dropping off place. It is a gathering of people whose sole purposed for being there is hoping the train or bus will be on time. Nobody lives at the Station house. This is simply a stopping-off place.

So the Church called these 14 Stations--stopping-off places--as moments when we would stop and look and listen and then move on to yet another station. They began to give pilgrims who could not make it to the Holy Land a taste of the places Jesus walked and the things he did the last week of his life. They called this trail, beautifully and fittingly, via dolorosa. The way of sorrows.

Once in the Middle Ages when people could neither read nor write--pictures and stained glass and stories gave the people the good news they found no other place. As the Black plague descended on village after village the old Priest called the people of his little hamlet together. It was just before dark. And so scared and frightened of what that terrible disease might do to them--they came in droves to the little church. The Priest took a huge candle from the altar. He shuffled back to the large crucifix on the wall. And he reached high up and lifted the candle so his people could see the tortured, blood-streaked face of Jesus. And then he moved slowly to Jesus' nailed-scarred hands and let the light linger there. Then--the Priest took the candle and pointed the light toward the wound in Jesus' side. Slowly he moved down the body to the twisted legs to Jesus' nailed-down feet. The Priest let the candlelight linger there. And then he stood back and lifted the candle so that the whole broken body of Jesus could be seen. He snuffed out the candle and slowly the people left the church. You could almost hear a pin drop. They went back to a hard time not knowing what the future would hold. Sickness perhaps death for them  and those they loved.  But they would remember the sermon they had witnessed that night. And those simple people believed what they had seen was somehow a word for what they would face.

And so it is with us this Lenten season. We shall shine the light on the fourteen stations of the cross. Hopefully, here at this way of sorrows we shall find, like those people long ago, something to keep us going too.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Jesus Guns

"Christians forget that it was the Devil who tempted Jesus with unbounded wealth and power. And it is the Devil in every American that makes us feel good about being so powerful."
  --William Sloane Coffin, Credo

Just about the time you think you've heard it all--another crazy story pops up that makes the church look like every other store in the mall--including the pawn shops. Peculiar people yes--but not weird.

I thought that church not far from me that gave away a Harley Davidson Motorcycle Day on Father's Day was a new low. But nooooo--The Kentucky Baptist Convention has an "outreach to rednecks." They call this effort "Second Amendment Celebrations." Churches around the state are encouraged to give away guns as door prizes to reach "the lost" in hopes of winning them to Jesus.

One Baptist Church in Paducah, Kentucky is expected  1,000 people will show up for a free steak dinner and a chance to win one of 25 handguns, long guns and shotguns. In Louisville recently 500 people showed up on a snowy Sunday for a gun giveaway and there were 61 people who gave their hearts to Jesus.

The Lord gave away bread one time but never guns. In fact when the people kept following him hoping for more bread--he chastised him for trailing behind him for the wrong reasons. In defense of this gun giveaway the Director of Communications for Kentucky Baptists said,"the day of hanging a banner in front of the church and saying you're having a revival and expecting people to come is over." Well he is right on that point--but I would saying calling anybody a red-neck which is, in my mind a racial slur--does not help his cause.

Anybody who has been to a heated Baptist Business meeting would know better than to bring guns to church.This is about as bad as bringing them into bars. Blood pressure rises and tempers flare in both places.

"Put up your sword," Jesus told Peter when he tried to protect his Lord from those who came to take him prisoner. I guess that group in Kentucky would use the version that says leave the swords at home and bring your gun for Jesus.

The Gospel was to be good news. For all. And maybe if we stick to those guns who knows? Maybe rednecks, blacks, women, gays, Democrats, Republicans and maybe even throw in a few atheists--might realize there  is a whole lot more to church than the National Rifle Association can promise.

--photo by paljoakim
--rogerlovette /

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

We Pastor-types are sometimes the lucky ones. When someone we love dies we can pour our own grief into the words we say at the funeral. We have to hold our emotions in check--and so in the words we choose and things we say--we are dealing with the loss. Here--I leave you with the words I said at my friend's funeral in Nashville. Our friendship spanned over 50 years. And such a friendship helps make the trip worthwhile.

I want to begin today by reading part of a poem called: “How to Live With Your Dash”.  I think it is appropriate for this service as we come to remember Bill Portman.

“I read of a man who stood up to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears.
But said what mattered most of all
Was the dash in between those years?

For that dash represents all the time
That she had spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved her know
 what that little line is worth.

For it matters not how much we own,
The cars, the house, the cash—
What matters most is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash. (Author Unknown)

Bill was born in Lexington, Kentucky July 23, 1931. He died at the Sumner Regional Medical Center February 22, 2014. But we have come to talk about today is what happened between that birthday back in Lexington and that sad day when he died.

For you see his life was filled with many, many things. That dash was chuck-full of so much and you have come because you were part of what happened during these years at one time or another.

First there is Helen, his wife of 55 years. Loren Eiseley was a great writer from Pennsylvania. And when his wife died he spoke at the grave service. And he looked down at that casket and that carved out piece of earth—and he spoke to his wife. And he said, “You have been with me all the way.” Helen Portman has been with Bill all the way. He didn’t want her to leave his sight those last hard days. And she stayed. And she crawled up in the bed with him and held him. What a gift—what a gift.

Marriage is an up and down affair. There are good days and there are hard days. Bill has been seriously sick for two years. And dear Helen has cared and loved and helped and did the dirty work when nobody else was around. I don’t know a wife anywhere who has done a better job. I think we ought to give Helen Portman a standing ovation. Would you join me? Helen, I know you will protest—but this is richly deserved. And anybody who knows your story—knows what I am talking about.

Bill grew up in Louisville in a house with a Mama and a Papa and a brother, Bobby. He went to Male High School and first played trumpet at University of Louisville. But he transferred after a year to Georgetown College. He felt God calling him to be a preacher and he went to Seminary. He served one church outside Charleston, South Carolina. One of my favorite stories is about that little country church where one of the members was notorious for her lack of sanitation. And she kept asking Bro. Bill to come eat with her some Sunday after church. And he kept putting her off. Bill was squeamish and he didn’t want to eat with her. But one Sunday she cornered him and he went to her house. Little house, no screens on the windows. Lots of flies. And it was about as he had expected. Maybe worse. And he didn’t want to eat anything. But he had to do something. So—as she waddled off into the kitchen to get something else—Bill would throw the food on his plate out the window. She never knew.

But God’s calls are not confined to preachers. And Bill knew that. And he probably knew he could not suffer some old deacons telling him what to do. He did have his strong opinions.  And so it was a good idea he went into Y work. I don’t know anybody better suited for a job. The old Y motto was body, mind and spirit. Bill was a committed Christian and he never forgot that spirit was part of the YMCA. And out of that commitment he influenced hundreds of young men and women. And lives scattered all over are different because of Bill Portman.

I met him first in Louisville. He and Helen had recently married in 1959. And we had recently married two years later and we struck up a friendship that lasts to this day. In Seminary I worked at the Louisville Y—and Bill was my boss. I followed his work in Louisville and then Danville, Virginia and then Marietta, Georgia and finally here in Nashville. Along the way he knew country music stars and business people—and kids and people of all ages.

But if you really want to know the character of the person—you have to look at those closest to him. And so we watched him and his attentiveness to tiny Pamela. I have a picture of Helen pregnant with Jody in Danville. Walking out of the house—big, very big, wearing flip-flops and laughing. So we knew Jodi. And he talked about them endlessly. Until, that is—the grandchildren came along and I heard all these stories of you and your accomplishments. You all called him Pup. And Pamela has three daughters: Sarah and Kelli and Laura. And Jodi has two boys and a girl. Reid, Ashlyn and Parker. What a gift to give one’s family—for them to know they are loved and cherished above all else.

There was a brother, Bobby—there was his cousin, Cherrie Ann—and then that was that larger family. The hundreds he coached. All those he took time with. The programs he arranged. All the people he was mentor to. They wanted to be like Bill Portman.  He left his fingerprints all over the place.

We drove from Memphis to Nashville when he retired. And he and Helen returned the favor when I retired in Birmingham. He spoke that night and told everybody about what a lousy driver I was and about that trip we made from Louisville to Rome in my Volkswagen and how terrified he was. I told him I would get him back if I ever had his funeral. But you know, Bill--I can’t do that.

He was always one of my favorite people and I hated to see his last years when his body began to break down. This active vital man. This terrific athlete. It was just too much for him. Still that great heart kept beating long after the Doctors thought it would stop. He wanted to stay for he loved life.
The Apostle Paul wrote to some of his favorite friends in Philippi: “Finally, bretheren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

For in between that day of his birth and this last week when he left us—Bill Portman’s life was crammed full of many good things that are worthy of praise.

But there is another word I want to say today to all of us. We have a dash, too. Something is going on between the day of our birth and that time when it will all end. And what are we going to do with this time we have left?  I want to say to Helen and Pamela and Jodi and these fine grandchildren and Bobby and Cherrie Ann. When Jesus stood up as a young man in the Synagogue—they asked him to read from the Scriptures. And he unrolled the Isaiah 61 scroll. And Jesus told them what he had come to do. And one of the things he said: “I have come to heal the brokenhearted.” We know that healing takes a long, long time. Jesus also said in one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted.” So I claim this promise for Helen and for all this family.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a Catholic nun named Jessica Powers. And this is what she said: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge—someone is hidden in this dark with me.”   Jesus told his disciples as he was to leave them: “Let not your heart be troubled... neither be afraid...for I will send the comforter, the Holy Spirit to be with you forever.” And they did not understand that—but in those days and years to come when slowly their grief was not so hard—they would remember what he had told them. And they wrote it down and they left it for us, too. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” they remembered he said,” neither be afraid.”

The tom-tom beat all the way through the Bible is one simple promise. On good days and bad. When they rejoiced and when they didn’t think they could stand it—the old promise would come back again and again. “I will be with you...I will be with you.” It works its way out in different ways for all of us—because we are all different. But we can all hang on to those words because they are true. “I will be with you.” Someone really is in this dark with us one and all.

Bill, we thank you for sharing the years between the day of your birth and the day you left—with us. We are better people because we knew you. You made us smile and laugh and sometimes want to strangle you—but you made a difference and we thank you for that. And we thank God for sending Bill Portman our way.

I want to close with a prayer that comes from the Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead. “Into paradise may the angels lead dear Bill; at his coming may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.” Amen.