thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
and lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
flood waters await us in our avenues.s
snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
over unprotected villages.
the sky slips low and grey and threatening.
we question ourselves.
what have we done to so affront nature?
we worry god.
are you there? are you there really?
does the covenant you made with us still hold?
into this climate of fear and apprehension, christmas
streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
and singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
the world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
come the way of friendship.
it is the glad season.
thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
flood waters recede into memory.
snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
as we make our way to higher ground.
hope is born again in the faces of children
it rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
hope spreads around the earth. brightening all things,
even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
in our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
at first it is too soft. then only half heard.
we listen carefully as it gathers strength.
we hear a sweetness.
the word is peace.
it is loud now. it is louder.
louder than the explosion of bombs.
we tremble at the sound. we are thrilled by its presence.
it is what we have hungered for.
not just the absence of war. but, true peace.
a harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
we clap hands and welcome the peace of christmas.
we beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
we, baptist and buddhist, methodist and muslim, say come.
come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
we, the jew and the jainist, the catholic and the confucian,
implore you to stay awhile with us
so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.
it is christmas time, a halting of hate time.
on this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
at this holy Instant, we celebrate the birth of jesus christ
into the great religions of the world.
we jubilate the precious advent of trust.
we shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
all the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of
we, angels and mortals, believers and nonbelievers,
look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
we look at our world and speak the word aloud.
we look at each other, then into ourselves,
and we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:
peace, my brother.
peace, my sister.
peace, my soul.
poem by maya angelou; picture at top by michael kimble, art at bottom by Brian Kershisnik.
This past Saturday evening I was honored to be asked to participate in a special program honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. As part of the service I sang one of my favorite songs about hopeful faith that is still searching for completion: U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. I've worked up a nifty little acoustic version over the years (and dropped the key considerably, as Bono hits notes I cannot).
I also read a poem that was penned by a friend of mine, David Lamotte, who recently hung up his guitar after some eighteen years of singing/songwriting and is now working with an organization he founded called PEG. The poem is David's take on a true story about a KKK rally in May 2007 in Knoxville and a group of folks who came together to do something truly unique and beautiful in response, in a way Dr. King would've certainly been proud of.
So with David's permission I am posting his poem here for you. Believe me when I say that you will want to take the time to read it. I also incorporated it into my sermon yesterday, a somewhat different take on the "turn the other cheek" passage in the gospel of Matthew. As much as a pastor can and should "feel good" about a sermon, I do about this one. You can check it out here.
On this day of remembrance and celebration - and on the eve of our country's inauguration of its first African-American president - let us strive for the equality of all people and do everything we can to further the way of nonviolence!
I'm a bit of a sucker for rummage sales. I may not stop at every one, but I definitely slow down to see what's available. Usually it's an overused couch, a box of baby clothes, secondhand toys. Every once in a while I may luck out and find a decent CD collection or some good books.
So I was slightly surprised when, in her book The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle describes the grand transition that worldwide Christianity is currently going through as a rummage sale. Not exactly the image one would expect, is it? Most folks will readily admit that Christianity in general is undergoing some kind of change, and therefore changing those who are part of it. Some have chosen to understand this as the effects of mass consumerism, the decline of modernism, or an increasingly apathetic culture.
In a sense, they're all correct. But there's much more to it than that. And that's what Tickle's book helps to conceptualize, in large part through a sweeping overview of Christian history. Every 500 years, Tickle observes, the church undergoes what she refers to as a "massive rummage sale" where the church "cleans out its attic." Meaning, the church goes through a transformation that changes both the agent of change in the church, and those resisting the change. Five hundred years ago was an obvious one - the Reformation, symbolized most prominently by Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Roughly 500 years before that came the Great Schism, where the Eastern church split from Rome. Go back another 500 years and you find Pope Gregory the Great, who Tickle argues saved Christianity by instituting the monastic movement which served to preserve the tenets of the faith during the Dark Ages ("held in trust" is how Tickle puts it). And roughly 500 years before that....well, you-know-who came onto the scene and set the whole thing in motion.
Whew. A lot to cover for sure. The point Tickle makes with her book is that we are currently in the midst of another 500-year rummage sale (as the math alone attests to). None of these, of course, are instantaneous events - they take place and evolve over many years. Nor do most people, when in the midst of these times of transformation, recognize that they are in such. It is only after the fact, with history in our rearview mirror, that we see it for what it is.
Tickle's book is an attempt to help the reader recognize the rummage sale we're currently experiencing and where it may lead us in in the future. It's a great way to get a bird's-eye view of what's happening on the larger Christian stage. And this is a hard thing for Western Christians to do, for a couple of reasons. One, we tend to believe that our Christianity is the world's Christianity, not recognizing the fact that the church is growing at a much more rapid pace in places like Latin America, Asia and especially Africa (which is interesting, because by defintion it then makes North America a "mission field" - perhaps a subject for a future blog). It's also a challenge for us to see the "big picture" because so much of our energy in the American church is directed at maintaining its institutionality - what color the drapes are, whether we'll be able to make budget for the coming year, how many folks have signed up for the youth ski trip.
In this blogger's humble opinion, Tickle does a fine job with what she sets out to do. She doesn't offer any sweeping reform, nor does she spend a lot of time plotting out the future (which would be my temptation). One of the things that really amazed me about the book is how she is able to cram so much into a mere 161 pages. Her sweeping recount of church history, and how it ties in with the 500-year rummage sale theory, more than adequately covers the essentials without leaving you feeling shortchanged. This book could've easily been twice as long - but there's little "fluff" in it. It says what it needs to in the fewest words possible and then moves on. For that reason, you do have to stay on your toes and pay attention, lest you miss something.
Tickle's writing style is not hard to follow, but I will say that it is different from any other writer I've experienced in recent memory. Again, you have to pay attention along the way. And she is prone to moments of rhetorical excess, like the very last sentence of the book where she speaks of the current emerging church: "The cub has grown into the young lion; and now is the hour of his roaring." Umm, okaaay.....
Still, The Great Emergence is a must-read for anyone who wants to get a feel for what is happening with Christianity these days; and how many of the "changes" we're encountering are not only inevitable but in many ways are necessary and should be embraced and celebrated. There has been much written and blogged about this book, and I imagine the conversation will only continue. I think it's a conversation worth our time.
Which is why I imagine the book about rummage sales will not be found at real rummage sales anytime soon.
Last night, before finally crawling into bed, I went to kiss the boys good night as they lay sleeping. It had been a late night for me and my wife, as I imagine it was for a lot of people, and thankfully they were fast asleep. One of them has a night-light beside his bed, so I can find his head relatively easily. The other's room is darker and I have to wait for my eyes to adjust so I know I'm kissing his head and not some stuffed animal.
Usually when I kiss the boys goodnight I say a silent prayer to myself. And I'll admit that many times that prayer has been along the lines of lament and petition. I've prayed that somehow my wife and I will have the good sense to do what's right with these guys, and everyone else they come into contact with will do the same, so they'll have a fighting chance to rise above a world that is often captivated by fear, that focuses on what separates us instead of what brings us together, that many times seems to be full of so much more bad than good. It is a bittersweet sort of prayer - I hate having to come at it from that angle, but I'm also thankful that my faith embraces a God who will hear these sorts of things.
But last night, as I touched my lips to their hairy little heads, my prayers were noticeably different; and they came without me even having to consciously think about it. They were prayers of thanksgiving - thanksgiving that our country really can rise above the kind of brokenness and misconceptions that have defined us for far too long. Thanksgiving that, with some help, we can unite once again and give our children the capacity to reach their potential and be defined by what we all share in common as Americans and children of God. Thanksgiving that, as I tell everyone who will listen, fear really can take a back seat to our heart-felt convictions.
I kiss their heads, knowing that this sort of thing won't come easily. The world is still full of such ugliness, and I'm smart enough to realize that this ugliness will continue to rear its head, in spite of and even because of what happened last night on our country's stage. We've come a long way, the saying goes, but we sure have a long way to go.
But at least we're at the starting line, and we've taken the first step in the race. My earnest hope and prayer is that our nation will choose to run this race together.
So much, then, for the obligatory goodnight kiss.
Well folks, I've given it some thought. Originally I wasn't going to formally endorse anyone for president. Politics tends to bring out the worst in us, and there would be too many complications, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings. But as we enter the last week of this election, I just can't help myself. My convictions are strong, and I feel it's time for me to speak up and let you know where I stand.
And that is why I am proud to endorse Jesus Christ for president.
What tilted it for me, you say? Well, there really wasn't any one thing. I kind of like his life story - small-town boy making it big. I mean, when you're born in a podunk town in an animal stable to two teenage parents, the deck's stacked against you. I'm also endorsing Jesus because of his obvious smarts. Anyone who can go toe-to-toe with the learned rabbis of his day as a twelve-year old kid has to receive some consideration, right? That's the kind of guy I want sitting behind the "big desk."
I'm also very enthused by his platform. At his heart he seems to genuinely care about all people and their well-being. I'll never forget that time he spoke to the huge crowd who came to hear him and they started getting hungry. What did he do? He fed them. How basic is that? Then there were all those instances where people brought their sick to him, and he went beyond just shaking their hands to actually make them feel better. The disenfranchised and the poor seem to be high on his list, as does treating all of God's people with respect. And I can't help but get inspired every time I hear him talk about his vision for the world - what he calls the "kingdom of heaven on earth." Makes me want to hop on the next train there.
Now I'll admit - some of Jesus' policies do raise some eyebrows. When he advised his constituents to give their cloak in addition to the coat they were asked for, well, that does make him sound like a redistributionist. And when he went nuts in the temple, overturning the moneychangers when their presence was common in the day (and important for the upkeep of the sacrificial routines of the temple itself, I might add), it might lead some to wonder if he's against the capitalistic enterprise.
On top of that, Jesus has had some suspect associations. I'm thinking about all those dinners at the homes of Pharisees. That's the equivalent of fraternizing with the enemy! And then there was that woman at the well he spent so much time with, the one who had not one husband but five. Hmm. The press will have a field day with that.
But see, I think all of this just highlights another reason why I like him so much - his uncanny way of bringing different people together for a common purpose. I mean, look at his disciples - his closest circle of friends, hand-picked. Women and men who were about as spread out over the spectrum as you could imagine. Tax collectors, fishermen, doctors, even Zealots - a motley crew if there ever was one. And while they rarely agreed on anything, somehow Jesus managed to keep them focused on his agenda. You gotta admire that - and gotta wonder what our world would be like if we chose to live with that kind of mentality.
In the end, I think the reason I am most proud to make this endorsement is because of the one thing Jesus possesses that gets to the very heart of who he is: and that is love. Love for one another instead of prejudice, anger, resentment. Love for the the earth instead of wasting it away and doing with it as we please. Love for God and the truth instead of caving in to the overwhelming power and influence of fear. It sounds simple, but it's amazing what you can do when you reject the stereotypical notions of Jesus and go deeper to encounter the essence of his message. When you do that, if you're like me, you just want to embody this kind of radical love in all aspects of your life.
I know his chances of winning are not all that great (not having his name on the ballot is a major hurdle). But I'm not sure "winning" is what ultimately matters here. What matters is that people of faith work to "endorse" Jesus with the way they conduct their lives in their families, in their places of work, in their churches and yes - even in their politics. And with that last part in particular, it is so important for us to remember that no one political party of our day and time has the "market" on Jesus. His message of love, humility, transformation, respect for all people and the coming of God's kingdom on earth transcends any political action committee or party platform we may conjure up.
Something we should keep in mind long after this election is over, don't you think?
When the apostle Paul wrote the words "speaking the truth in love" in his second letter to the Corinthians, he wasn't just waxing poetic. Things weren't going great in the church - divisiveness, arguing over petty things, lots of discord (and go ahead and admit it - it's kind of nice knowing it went on back then too!) Paul was not one to refrain from calling a spade a spade, as the expression goes. But he issued two criteria for his dialogue: he spoke the truth (whether they were going to like it or not), and he spoke it not out of hatred or malice or anger, but out of something radical: love.
I find the need this Saturday morning to emulate Paul, as much as I'm able to. What had been a leisure morning sipping on a cup of coffee and checking the morning news turned kind of sour when I came across this - an article about a "letter" put out by Focus on the Family called "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America". This is a new attempt by elements of the religious right to try and scare people as they head into the polls. It's pitched as a letter from a Christian in the year 2012, looking back on four years of an Obama presidency, imagining all sorts of horrible things that have happened to our country. You can skim the letter if you dare, but it's not all that difficult to fathom the kinds of things that are conjured up, knowing the political platform of the letter's origin.
(It's not just on the presidential stage, either. Senator Elizabeth Dole from my home state of North Carolina has come out with a Youtube ad linking her challenger, Kay Hagan, to a PAC group called the Godless Americans. Interesting that the video never mentions that Hagan is, in fact, a lifelong Presbyterian and an elder in her home church in Greensboro).
I have said it before - I do not intend for this blog to become a political forum. If I did, you can bet your hanging chads that I'd be blogging once, perhaps even more each day about the wacky and exhausting political season over the past year or so, as strongly as I feel about some things. But when it comes to stuff like this letter, I do feel called as a person of faith to stand up and "speak the truth in love."
So here's the truth about the letter - it is garbage. It is nothing more than fear-mongering intended to influence you when you step into the polls on or before next Tuesday. I've commented in a previous blog about how some have tapped into our basest fears in this election (and you can read that blog right here) and how this totally flies in the face of all things Christian. "Do not fear" is a phrase repeated dozens of times throughout the history of the Old Testament, the Psalms, and even by Jesus himself.
Amazingly, this fact doesn't seem to register with organizations like the ones that wrote this letter. A significant part of their operation hinges on the understanding that there is no room for thinking or stances on certain issues that differ even slightly from their rigid platform. And that has always amazed me, since Jesus himself sought out the companionship of twelve individuals (men and women) who couldn't have been more different - zealots, tax collectors, fishermen. These weren't just people with different jobs. They were people who saw the world in extraordinarily different ways, who differed in both their religious and - dare I say - political stances. How amazing that Jesus chose as his "family" the modern-day equivalent of a motley crew of democrats, republicans, libertarians, green party members, and extremists from all ends of the spectrum. The fact that organizations like Focus on the Family seem to miss this is a mystery to me.
I've said it before: in this election season (and in all of life, really), as Christians we are most faithful when our actions (and our vote) are carried out not based on our fears but on our convictions. Over the past few months, I've engaged in many conversations with people from both parties. And I've found that the ones I enjoy most are not necessarily with people who agree with me, but with people who have thought through the issues and made a rational decision about who or what they will vote for. The conversations that are much more difficult and exasperating are with people who are hell-bent on voting against a candidate out of their fears of him or her - because there is no possibility for honest dialogue. There is no potential for "speaking the truth in love" in these kinds of situations. Which makes us no better than that Corinthian church that had Paul banging his head against the wall.
This election season has been going on forever, it seems. Hard to imagine that it will all be over in just a little more than a week. My hope and prayer is that after it's all said and done, whomever is elected to whatever office will work to heal the rifts that have been created out of our fears; and that we as a nation will strive to do the same. If that happens, then maybe there will be something after all to speaking the truth in love. As my faith calls me to do time and time again, I remain hopeful.
Usually when you hear the phrase "out of the mouths of babes" you think of something really cute or really funny a kid says. My personal favorite: Sunday Easter service, children's message: associate pastor makes small talk with little girl sitting next to him while waiting on other kids before beginning message. He tells her how pretty her Easter dress is. Her response (which is heard by the entire congregation, thanks to the pastor's lapel mic): "Yeah, but Mom says it's a bitch to iron." I know folks who swear it's a true story. I certainly hope it is.
But sometimes children can amaze us with the wisdom of their words; a wisdom that far exceeds their years. And when this happens we either chuckle at an odd coincidence, or marvel at how kids seem to "get it" much more than we grownups do.
Yesterday I woke up and took the eldest to school; and then decided on a whim (something my Myers-Briggs "J" doesn't permit me to do very often) to take a day off. I'm not preaching this Sunday, so no sermon to prepare. And I did have a lot of things to get done around the house, yard work kind of stuff; and I have enough of my father in me where that kind of stuff really feels more like therapy than manual labor. So I grabbed the pruning shears and got to work trimming some of the overgrown trees in our yard (being very "green" about it, I promise you) while listening to NPR on the radio.
Ugh. Should have just listened to the ipod. I got to hear all the intricate details, live, of the vote in the House on the bailout bill, and the unexpected defeat of said bill, and the subsequent nose dive of the stock market. 777 points - greatest single-day drop in American history. I got to hear all of this, and then I got to hear the pundits talk about it; and then I got to hear the politicians blame "the other side" for the bill's defeat. I got to hear economists talk about how this will be devastating, and about how people will lose their jobs and their retirement and their life savings. I know I could have just as easily changed the channel to soft rock or something, but it's the "train wreck" effect where you just can't take your eyes (or in this case, your ears) off of it. So, like many of you, I listened to it all.
Needless to say I was depressed - we all were (and are). How can this happen in our country? How could companies and corporations have engaged in such obviously unethical practices without realizing it'd eventually come out in the laundry? How could our elected officials not put aside partisan/presidential politics and come up with some kind of solution that everyone could rally around? More than being angry, and more than being fearful, I was depressed. This is what it has come down to; this is where we have found ourselves. I'm thinking to myself how my faith in humanity is at an all-time low.
So all of this is weighing heavy on my mind as our family were in the throes of our nightly ritual that evening: pajamas, teeth brushed, bathroom, books in our bed. My wife and I trade off who tucks who in at night, and on this night I had the eldest. He likes for me to play my bass and sing a few songs. It's a fretless and I'm still learning how to use it - you've got to be dead-on with each note or it's noticeably out of tune. I'm off more than usual tonight, but it seems to fit the mood of the day rather well.
We sing some song - I think it was a Gin Blossoms tune - and then I ask what he wants to sing next. And out of nowhere he suggests He's Got the Whole World in His Hands. Sure, I thought. Key of G - pretty simple, G and D, back and forth. We sing the first verse and then a few others. The standards: the little bitty baby, you and me brother, you and me sister.
We sing three or four of them and then we stop and pause for a second in the dark; the only sound coming from Hammie the hamster as he runs around his cage. And then the eldest breaks the silence, saying with a tone of voice that combines both comfort and wisdom, You know, Daddy, he really does have everything in his hands. You know that, don't you, Daddy?
And all I can think about is everything that had transpired that day and in the days prior, and how he has no clue about any of it; but how his words just now provided for me the anchor I so desperately needed as the world around me seemed to be spinning wildly out of control.
Yeah, I tell him, I do know that. He does have it all in his hands. Thanks for reminding me.
Out of the mouths of babes indeed.