Sunday, May 29, 2016

Have Mercy

Preached at Church of the River/ First Unitarian Church, Memphis
May 29, 2016
Matthew 9:9-13

Any belief system that we call religion must engage humans in a journey that takes them deeper into the experiences of loving and being loved. True religion teaches us to become more merciful toward ourselves and others or it is not worthy of being called a religion. For religion is a way of learning about God, the creator and sustainer of life.

God is love. Love is merciful; love is kind. Love is patient. It does not keep score. Love crosses over and erases the boundary that separates sinners from God. To me, to be a sinner is to fail to recognize how much I am loved. We all tend to fail in that regard from time to time. I know I do.

Jesus was merciful toward all of us… beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, prisoners, ex-felons, homeless men and women, people with mental illness, foreigners, widows, orphans and people with contagious diseases. His inclusiveness was religious, racial, economic and political. He didn’t judge people and stamp them with a label: illegal immigrant, lazy welfare queen, unwed mother, promiscuous drug addict, hopeless bum.

Jesus sat with people considered outcasts and he ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them and enjoyed their company. This was outrageous to the righteous!  They criticized him and they criticized his disciples, insisting that they justify their behavior. “Get it right or get out!” the righteous demand. This has nothing to do with God, love or mercy. So what does it have to do with religion?

The early church took quite seriously the mercy of Jesus. The Roman world was amazed at the courage and mercy of Christians in the middle of plagues, war and persecutions. Jesus called “the least of these” into the heart of his redemptive love. And the early Christians were known for following Jesus’ example.

Followers of Jesus opened their hearts and their homes to others because it was their calling. They had been lovingly received into a new way of life, a fuller and freer way of living and being. They had no reason to shut others out of the experience that had embraced them with hope, eliminating their fears and healing their wounds. Faith hoarded is faith destroyed. True faith in the love of God crosses over and erases any boundaries that separate us from one another or from God.

Today’s church no longer seems as clear as it once did about following in the way of Jesus and growing more merciful. I am not sure where we would find Jesus eating today if he came for dinner.

Last Sunday morning, in downtown Memphis, an 18 year old girl (Myneishia Johnson) was walking on Second Street with two of her friends. A man drove by and fired a gun at them. All three were struck by the bullets and Myneishia was dead at the scene. She was due to graduate from Booker T Washington High School this week. Her one-year old son accepted her diploma for her yesterday. His grandmother carried him across the platform.

In reaction to the announcement that this infant would be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma, a Memphis woman named Kelly Griffin wrote to the principal of Booker T. Washington, Alisha Coleman Kriner, saying that Myneishia’s son should not be allowed to receive his mother’s diploma. It would be, in Ms Griffin’s judgement, a celebration of the sin of an unwed mother who was out with friends instead of being home where she belonged. And Ms Griffin went on to add that the father of the infant was not known and this somehow added to her disgust that the child should receive his mother’s diploma..

The principal, Ms Coleman-Kriner, was horrified by the woman’s self-righteousness and by all that Kelly Griffin assumed about this young girl. The principal wrote back to Ms Griffin and set her straight about many things. But some things cannot be set straight by an email. I fear that Ms Griffin, wherever she is and whatever her situation, will need more than an email to connect with the mercy in God’s love.

“I have come,” Jesus said, “to call not the righteous but sinners.” That is what he said. And his words leave us, you and me, Ms Coleman- Kriner, Ms Griffin and all of us, to determine where we are in that statement. Has he come to call us or have we put ourselves outside the sound of his voice, made ourselves too good, too clean, too educated, too wealthy to have him sit with us at the table?

Interesting… The word “sinner” here in the Matthew text can be translated to “outcast.” Jesus is accused of eating with tax-collectors and outcasts. The people at the table where Jesus chose to sit and eat were not morally corrupt or terminally broken people. They were people who had not pleased the rule-keepers, the righteous, the powerful.

They were called “sinners” because they were people who had been cast out of the in-crowd and its power. And Jesus’ strategy is a simple one. He eats with them. He goes where the culture has infused toxic shame and he renders the people there wholly acceptable. No, more than that…wholly favorable.

Gregory Boyle is a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who started and is the executive director of a nonprofit called Homeboy Industries. He loves and supports gang members in Los Angeles and he has been loving them for many years now. He has a thousand stories to tell about the ways that being loved, being called and being included have transformed human lives on the streets and in the poor neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Gregory Boyle, this Jesuit priest, fights despair. His book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, is as inspiring and touching as any book I have ever read. I recommend it to you.

Boyle says that we have come to believe that people grow into being favorable with Jesus, with our creator, with perfect love. We have to work at it, according to popular opinion. We must do things to please God. We must sacrifice and atone for our waywardness in order to be loved and favored by God. We must live a certain way and the externals of our life must illustrate how much God loves us. It will be obvious that we are blessed: nice car, nice clothes, good job, orderly life. No shame.

But Boyle says it’s not like that. We don’t work our way into God’s mercy and love. He points out: The only thing we know about Jesus growing up years is that he grew in wisdom and favor with God. But, Boyle asks, did Jesus work at becoming favorable to God or did he discover, as time went by, that he was in fact wholly favorable to God and had always been so—even as you and I are wholly favorable even now? Even as we all are. Right now.

This good guy priest, Gregory Boyle, serves the Delores Mission, a church that has been vandalized, its walls spray-painted with the words: Wet Back Church. It is a place where gang members gather by the bell tower, homeless and undocumented men and women are fed, and folks arrive at all hours for AA and NA meetings.

One day a man drove up to Delores Mission in a fine car and he got out. He had on very nice clothes. He talked with Boyle, nostalgic for his early life in this neighborhood. He had been baptized in that building and had had his first communion there. He looked around at the people gathered. “Tsk. Tsk.” He said, “You know, this used to be a church.”

According to Boyle, it is now finally a church, a place where our culture’s toxic shame is washed away, a place where lives are transformed by love, a place where everyone has a chance to feel included. It’s a church, a place where people are called to give and receive mercy.

Perfect love passes by us as we go about our daily business, as we struggle to have faith and to sustain our hope. “Come with me,” Love calls us. “Follow me. Have mercy.” And be the church in Memphis.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

In One Place

Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. We lived right downtown, next door to First Church of the Nazarene, where my daddy was the preacher. Church was all I knew in my early years. The year that I was four, I was left alone and lonely. My brother, Stanley, who is one year older than I am, started kindergarten that year. My two older brothers, Kendall and Dale, were busy with school, band, sports and girls. My mother was the church administrator and pianist. My father was always busy in his study, visiting church members or attending meetings. I was left to entertain myself.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the front steps of our house, watching people park their cars and then walk down First Avenue to work. I knew everybody who worked downtown: Mr. Smith, who owned Smith’s Gulf Station, went to our church. Red, who worked at Kilgore’s Feed and Seed, was my pal. Mr. Johnson, who owned Johnson’s Home Hardware, was tall and handsome. I had a big crush on him. But they were busy, working. They had little time for me. I sat on the front steps and watched the world go by.
I remember the moment clearly when I first noticed the tin-roof shanties across the empty field. There were six of them. Once I noticed them, I couldn’t help wondering why I had never noticed them before. Straight across a weed-covered field, where houses had been torn down, there were six frame shacks in a row and, the most exciting thing, there were children playing all around them! I stood up to see more clearly. Children were running, chasing each other, squealing and laughing with delight.
I ran inside and found my mother at the typewriter. “Mama! Mama! Look! There are children playing over there! Can I go over there and play?!” She was busy and didn’t want to be bothered. I had to pull on her arm for a while. Finally she sighed heavily and stood to look outside. Her eye followed my eager pointing. Then she frowned and shook her head. “Oh, no!” She sat down and started typing again.
“Mama! Why not?!”
“Because!” She was annoyed. “It would just cause trouble. Now go on outside and stop bothering me.”
So I went over to the church and found my father in his study. “Daddy! Can I go across the street and play with those kids over there?”
“What kids?”
“Over there. Across the field.” He stood and looked out the window.
“Why not?!”
“Those children are negroes and you can’t play with them.”
“Why not?!”
“Because they have their own friends to play with. That’s why.”
“Their own friends?”
“That’s right. Negro friends.”
“Do they go to school with Kendall and Dale?”
“No. They have their own school.”
“Well, why, if they live right there, across the street, why don’t they come over here to church with us?”
“Because they have their own church, just like they have their own friends and school.”
And so I went back to sit on the front steps, all alone, wondering about this division, this separation, this difference between us and them. A year later, when I learned to read I would read the signs downtown: Colored Only and Whites Only on the water fountains. Colored Entrance at the back of the dime store. The signs were there and clear.
The church didn’t have any printed signs. It didn’t need them. The signs were everywhere: who was in and who was not. Depending on race, the language a person spoke, the kind of dress they wore, the level of education. All of it kept us separated and divided into our many places of worship.
And this week, the United Methodist General Conference met for its quadrennial gathering and voted once more to separate and divide people. Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are not to be ordained or included in the same way that heterosexual people are to be included in their way of doing and being church.
But how has it happened and what does it mean that the church has become a place that keeps people apart, assures that some people never get to meet, know and share life with others? Some people stay lonely and isolated on their front steps forever. Never knowing that God’s love is theirs. The Holy Spirit came to include them in the one place where love reigns for all.
What does it mean to be a church? Is it a building we claim, maintain and visit once or twice a week? Is it a place with an open door and signs of welcome for only a few or for all people? How do we live now as church people? I’ve spent my life asking these questions.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. I have worn a red dress today because the color of Pentecost is red. Red with passion. On Pentecost Sunday we remember when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of The Way. The Spirit came like a mighty rushing wind; flames of fire stood over the heads of believers and they had an experience of being able to speak in a variety of languages so that people from every nation who were present that day could hear and understand what the believers were saying. The "church" began to broaden that day, to widen its scope and include people of varying backgrounds, races and nationalities. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians in order to broaden our understanding of God's love for all people.
It was seven weeks after the resurrection. On that Pentecost Day, there were about 125 people gathered together with the disciples. There were people who had met Jesus, followed in his path and there were people who had heard about Jesus from those who had known him. All of them were finding their lives transformed by the stories, and the love that Jesus had shared.
Christianity is a love story. It is that simple and that broad. Pentecost happened to broaden the love, widen the spread of God’s promises for all creation.
Christianity has succeeded because it transformed the lives of people. It has brought us together and allowed us to discover meaning in the days between our birth and our death. Christianity has given us hope. The Holy Spirit has come to live in us and among us to make it clear that hope exists for all people, to make it possible for us to share hope with all people. The church is called and equipped to live differently than the culture around us.
In the first five centuries of the Christian faith, people understood that following in The Way of Jesus was to challenge the status quo. Believers infuriated the defenders of ancient Roman religions, who insisted that Christianity was an immoral sect with secretive rites and rituals that undermined the family values of that culture.
The Way was based on Jesus teaching recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
And Jesus replied with the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Christianity is a love story.
The Holy Spirit came upon us as a mighty wind, flames of fire and the capacity to communicate with each other and to be understood in a variety of languages. Christianity connects us to each other. The church belongs to a kind of love that brings us all together in one place and for one purpose: to be connected and transformed by love’s presence and power.
That first Pentecost Sunday brought changes. And people then, just like people today, were uncomfortable with change. Changing our understanding of who we are and how we connect with each other is challenging.
Shady Grove has its own challenges as you live out your love story together. The world is changing around you so quickly. It’s hard for all of us to keep up anymore. The ground seems to shift under our feet as we learn about new threats, new enemies and new challenges every day.
And here in this place, you have recently merged two congregations, two traditions, two sets of people. You are grieving the loss of your long time and beloved pastor. The winds of change are blowing you about. Blowing away the dust and awakening your passion to follow in The Way, to be the best love story this congregation can be together and in one place.
It’s the birthday of the church, a day when we recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit to broaden our understanding of God’s love for all people—all people in this place, in this city, in our nation, in all creation. May Shady Grove always be a place where people feel the passion of the Holy Spirit’s longing to share hospitality, to make all people welcome and included in the particular love story in this one place.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Chains Unfastened

Preached at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016 (Mother’s Day)
Acts 16:16-34
I’m Hannah, the slave girl you heard about in the scripture reading today. I used to be a slave girl. I used to be a lot of things that I am no longer. I thought you might like to know my story. I want to tell you what it took to save me and set me free.
You’ve been told that I was following after Paul and Silas, shouting as they walked along the street. “These men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” I knew who they were as soon as I saw them passing by. I’ve always had a gift, the power to see truth, to look at people and see through them, through whatever masks they put on or whatever pretense they adopt. I can see the center where their spirit lives.
And that’s what got me thrown out of the house—even as a small child. My father was unhappy with my boldness to speak, my gift made him feel exposed, threatened by me. He said I had a wild look in my eye, a demon in my spirit. So he put me out on the street. My mother sneaked a blanket and some food to me on that first night. But after that, she was afraid to challenge my father and his awful anger.
Lucky for me, I can sing. I started standing in the market place and singing, long, low laments, deep sounds of sorrow and pain. People threw coins in my basket. They recognized their own suffering in the sound of my songs. People in the marketplace began to come to me for my songs and for my ability to see into their souls.
“What do you see in my future?” they asked and I told them. Some days there was a long line, people waiting to have a moment with me.
Unlucky for me, the sound of my voice attracted two men who had no scruples but a love for profit. One night as I was sleeping on a side street, they chained me, beat me and claimed me as their slave. They could do that. There was no law against it, you know. Or maybe you don’t know that in my day and in my culture an unclaimed woman could be any man’s property. Any one’s slave. I was forced to tell fortunes during the day and the men pocketed the high price they charged for my gift. They chained me to a post every night while their dogs were free to roam. I sang myself to sleep at night.
Always the unscrupulous men were guarding me, making sure whatever I did was of benefit to them. They watched for crowds, dragging me to places where people were congregated and that’s how I came to be in the street when Paul and Silas came along. They were the kind of men who drew a crowd. I could see they had great power, they also had a gift. They told stories about a man who was love, nothing but love for people, all people. I heard what they had to say and I could see clear through it, down to the truth of what they had to say. It was crystal clear. Those men were telling us about something that could make a difference.
Something more had come into the world and they knew how to get in touch with that something more. I couldn’t help but shout! Over and over again! It was that important! I looked around at the crowd of people following those men and I could see how they suffered, how they were hungry for something more and I wanted them to know that something more was being offered! I kept it up for days. The men who owned me didn’t mind since I was drawing attention to myself and getting business for them.
But on the third day, Paul turned around and called out to me. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of her!” He was annoyed. His face was red and furious as he hollered. He looked and sounded just like my father. I felt crushed. I stopped hollering. I stopped seeing into the depths of him or anyone. That angry face robbed my spirit of something alive. I had hoped for something more, the something more that Paul and Silas were talking about. Paul’s anger chilled me to the bone. I just wanted to go somewhere and hide.
But the men who owned me weren’t about to let me hide. They hollered at me too. They insisted that I tell the fortunes of customers they brought to me. But I could not. And so they beat me, they beat me so badly I thought I might bleed to death. I didn’t die and when the men were convinced I could no longer tell fortunes, they put me to work as a prostitute, continuing to collect money for the work that I did.
I heard the men talking. They had accused the men, Paul and Silas, of robbing them when Paul had ordered me to be silent. It was hard for me to think of anything about me as belonging to me. The men took even the few coins people threw into my basket when I sang, low and mournful beside the road. What was left of my voice seemed to belong to them, not me.
I suppose I would still be working as a prostitute. I would still be under the control of those men if it had not been for the jailer’s wife. Sarah. Everybody should know Sarah. She’s thoughtful, smart, kind. And brave too.
Turns out Paul and Silas were beaten and they were thrown into jail for the losses my owners suffered. Sarah told me all about it. That “something more” those men have, that story about a man named Jesus who brought perfect and powerful love into their lives…they were singing hymns about all of that, praising God. The power of it all brought on an earthquake and unfastened their chains! Their chains came unfastened and they were free! The chains of all the prisoners in that jail were unfastened! Singing set them free! Wow!
Paul and Silas went home with the jailer. Sarah cooked for them, a big feast. And when they all sat down to eat, when everyone was talking about all that had happened, Sarah got to thinking about me. Her curiosity was awakened. She has two daughters of her own. Sarah wondered what had happened to that slave girl and she wondered where the girl’s home was, where her mother might be.
It took a few weeks. Sarah couldn’t stop thinking about me and worrying, the way mothers do, you know? And so she came to find me. I must have looked a mess, living like I was and being so mistreated. I was too beat up to work when she found me chained and lying by a trash heap.
But Sarah walked up to me and smiled. Smiled at me as if I were somebody special. She asked enough questions to be sure I was the one she was looking for. And then she found the men who owned me and asked them how much it would cost to purchase me. “What must I do to save her?” she asked.
I’m not sure what it cost to redeem me but Sarah found out and brought her husband back to pay whatever it cost to take me home with them. I am no longer a slave. Sarah adopted me as one of her own, a member of their family. And this is where I live now—washed, well fed and strong again. Gifted too.
There’s an entire community of us, a group of people who have come to believe in the power of something more. We trust the love of Jesus, the kind of love that lives and reigns in a mother like Sarah. Love that can save us all, set us free, unfasten the chains that hold us down.
I can see truth. I can see deeply and I can sing again. Not low songs of sadness but joyful songs of praise! I love to sing about the goodness I see and feel in Sarah, in this community of faith and in the hope I have that one day all of us, all people everywhere, will find their chains unfastened.



Sunday, January 17, 2016

Choosing Hope

Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2016
Micah 6:7-8
Luke 6:37-38

It is never a bad choice to be hopeful.

President Obama gave his State of the Union Address this week. It was his final State of the Union Address. It was optimistic and hopeful.  I felt both encouraged and challenged by what he had to say. He said, “We should not fear the future but rather, shape it.”
Too many times I have allowed my own fears to shape me. When that happens, I hide in the darkness where hope, optimism and encouragement are hard to find. In that place, I have difficulty seeing the good in me and I can't imagine it in others. When fear is in charge of my attitude and thoughts, I am shaped by it rather than faithfully shaping a better way.
I need to be reminded of how powerful fear can be. I need to be invited to return to the light where hope is found, where hope can be shared. I appreciated what our president had to say. There has been so much fear in the air, on television, on the internet and in our conversations lately. If our faith in the love of God is to mean anything at all, then now is the time for us to put it to good use by speaking hope into the fear that threatens to dominate our time, energy and relationships.
On Friday morning I attended a District Issues Meeting with Congressman Steve Cohen. There were about two hundred people there. Steve Cohen and his staff listened respectfully and patiently as person after person took the microphone and expressed their needs. Veterans felt underappreciated, their care at the VA Hospital was not as effective or as efficient as they needed it to be. Home health care workers told about working long hours and getting paid $7.25 per hour without any benefits. People with physical challenges told about their need for access to public transportation. Some people told about discrimination in their work places, injustice based on gender, race and age. One woman told about a friend, a senior citizen, being exploited by scammers. One man, speaking through a translator, told about families being torn apart by deportation.
It went on for over two hours. People shared their narratives and named their needs. It could have been discouraging. It might have left us feeling bleak. But it didn’t. We were not discouraged because somebody listened. Steve Cohen and his staff paid attention to what was said; they took notes and names. They told each person which staff person would be responding to their particular need.
If this is politics, I am for it. People need a place to share their needs and somebody who will listen and respond with help and hope. If it is a congressman, then thank God for congressmen! Being listened to is being loved. Listening to others is just, kind and humble. It is the way to create hope.
Last evening I went to Bridges for their second annual Youth Ignite Event. Young people imagine ways to make Memphis a better, safer, more hopeful place to live. They acknowledge a problem, imagine a solution and develop ways to make the solution a reality. Then they present the whole thing in five minutes with a power- point and ask for the support of the community. It is enough to ignite hope for the entire nation!
Those young people, high school students, were so clear about what the problems are. They were focused on solutions and so happy to have reliable solutions to offer to us. They were hopeful, pressed down and running over with hopefulness.
Eight presentations are selected for the event. Many students have great ideas and they all have exhibits on site, but only eight of them get to present for the gathered crowd. From those eight presentations a winner is chosen, voted on by the young people there. And there were about three hundred young people in the audience. The winner gets support to make their plan happen.
Last night’s winner was a young man who has been in juvenile detention. He told us that all the men in his family had spent time in jail. Men get involved in crime. That was all he knew until the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department introduced him to new people, new ways of looking at life, new hope. He got a mentor and he has turned his life around. He presented the idea of having peer mentors for every young man in juvenile detention, a program that connects young men to new role models, a brighter future and new hope.
The presentations included a program to address and reduce sexual harassment among students in our schools, community gardens to fight food deserts, sex education to decrease teen pregnancy, theater programs to give students in high- poverty schools an opportunity to shine, a support group for girls to increase self-confidence, SAT and ACT prep assistance for students in high poverty schools to give them a better chance at college entry. 
Can you feel it? The hope generated by these young people and their ideas? They trust the future to hold solutions. Their own solutions. They are busy shaping the future, too busy to allow fear to hold them back.
It is never a bad choice to be hopeful.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day and many of us will be involved in some kind of service, doing something to make the world around us a better place, doing something to honor the life of Dr. King, doing something to help make his dream a reality. If you don’t already have a plan, you can go to the web site for Volunteer Memphis or the web site for Be the Dream and find a place and a way to share your own light tomorrow.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King referred to the story we call “The Good Samaritan.” You know the story. A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of thieves who beat him, robbed him, and left him for dead beside the road. A priest walked by and passed by on the other side of the road. Then a Levite went by and saw the man lying beside the road. The Levite walked on.
But a Samaritan was traveling on that road and he went over to the wounded man. The Samaritan was moved with pity. He bandaged the man’s wounds, gave him water, took the man to an inn and cared for him there. The next day he gave money to the inn keeper, covering the expenses of the room for the next day. And he promised to cover whatever cost was incurred by the man’s recovery.
Dr. King points out, in his Dream Speech, that we do not know why the priest and the Levite did nothing to help the wounded man. Jesus didn’t offer that in the telling of this story. We only know they did not help. Dr. King suggests that the priest and the Levite might have been asking themselves this question: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Maybe the thieves were not gone. Maybe it was a very dangerous thing to stop and take time to help the victim. Dr. King says that the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a rocky and twisted road, isolated… a good place for thieves to attack and rob a traveler.
We also do not know, Jesus does not tell us why, the Samaritan chose to stop and to go toward the wounded man, to look at him and invest in his recovery. Dr. King suggests that the Samaritan might have been asking himself this question: “If I do NOT stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Dr. King urged us then and I urge us today: “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” It is the only way to win a victory over our communal fears. It is the way to increase hope in our nation, in our city, in our homes, in our lives.
Howard Zinn, the historian writes: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.”
It is never a bad choice to be hopeful.








Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making Room For Love

Preached at Church of the River/First Unitarian Church
December 27, 2015
Psalm 91
Contemporary Reading:
“…The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds." C S Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age”
A few years ago when the controversy surrounding the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue began, Anna and I were driving down Union Avenue and we saw a sign posted in front of the statue. It was big, bright and colorful. It read: “Please, don’t feed the fears.” I got out of the car and took a picture of the sign. I’ve used that picture repeatedly in my work with students at Memphis College of Art. The students need to know and be reminded that it is their fears that block their learning, their growth and their creativity. I need to be reminded that it is my fears that keep me from being fully alive. All of us need to realize that our fears close the door, at least in part, on our capacity to love and to be loved. Fear is only useful to us when there is real danger, a threat to our well-being and survival. Too many times and in too many ways I have fed my fears. You probably see it in yourself. And that is where the hope lies. In our ability to honestly reflect on our fears and how they can stifle our creativity and our capacity to love. Feeding our own fears not only robs us, it robs the world around us of all that we might contribute if we were not caught up in a cloud of fear.
I want to talk about fear today because I think fear is on our minds. Donald Trump is building his political campaign on fear and feeding it. The media depends on our fear and shovels fuel into its fire. Advertising profits from our fear of getting fat, growing old and being rejected. I do my best to keep my guard up against fear. You probably do the same. It is a matter of our emotional health. Yet, I must confess that I was feeling a shower of fear when I went downtown on December 5th to participate in the St Jude Marathon. Following the San Bernadino shootings and the terrorist attack in Paris, the St Jude event with 21,000 people at the start line, seemed like a perfect place for something awful to happen. And I have been fearful this holiday season because so many neighbors and friends have had their homes burglarized. I confess that fear gets to me sometimes. I don’t want to act as if nothing bad could ever happen to me and my family. There’s every reason for us to be aware of our surroundings and the possibilities. But on the other hand, I don’t want to miss the joy of life simply because I am consumed by fear. I imagine you’re with me on this. It’s a common theme in our lives these days. I think we need to start talking about fear and then finding ways to support each other’s faith in what is good. Learning to trust what is good and eternal is community work. We need each other in order to live faithfully. Any of us can live fearfully all alone. Living faithfully in love is done with others or not at all.
In order to love more and live in faith, we have to first move fear out of the way. We have to move our fears out and then replace them with love. It begins with courage, the courage to acknowledge that fear is taking up too much room in our soul. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” Teilhard de Chardin said, “but we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Each one of us is a reflection of God‘s divine spirit.  We were created by love, brought to this life by love and given the opportunity to help bring creation to its completion with love. We are not helpless victims. We are part of the fiber of God’s purpose in the creation story. Realizing that and affirming it among our friends and family can move the watery fear out of our circulatory system and replace it with the red blood cells of resolve to love this life fiercely.
If you have been to Caritas Village in the Binghampton neighborhood, it is likely that you have had the good fortune to eat some of Ibby’s soup. Ibby came to the United States from Sudan several years ago. She and her family arrived in Memphis as strangers in a foreign land. They settled into their house in Binghampton and Ibby missed her community. In Sudan she had lived with the door open. Neighbors knew each other; they came and went freely from each other’s homes. Children were cared for by other women in the neighborhood. Neighbors ate together. Shopping and laundry were not done in isolation. The ordinary things of daily life were community experiences. Missing those experiences, Ibby and her husband began to make connections here in Memphis. He drove the neighborhood children to school and saw to it they got there safely. She started cooking at Caritas Village. They built relationships.
One night, Ibby’s husband had a stroke. She called 911 and the paramedics came. There was chaos and then they were at the hospital. When the sun came up and her husband was stabilized, Ibby took a taxi home to shower and change clothes. She saw that her front door was wide open. “Oh,” she thought, “how could I have been so careless?!” She imagined that everything they owned would be gone.
But when Ibby walked through that open door, she found everything she owned in its place and she found neighbors, six of them, seated in her living room. “We saw the front door was open and we knew something was wrong. So we just came to wait and see if you need help.” Those six neighbors saw to it that Ibby got rides back and forth to the hospital until her husband came home. They ate with Ibby so she would not feel alone. And while her husband was recovering, the neighbors took turns driving the neighborhood children to school, seeing to it they got there safely.
I see Ibby as an example of moving fear out of the way so love can replace it. She came to this country from far, far away. She could have allowed fear to overwhelm her. She could have closed herself off emotionally, just longing for what she had known back home. And think how much her neighbors would have missed, if she had done that!
A few years ago I took a mission trip to Tijuana. I was struck by the poverty there, unlike what I think of as poverty here in Memphis. I went into the home of a family who lived in a house built with materials scavenged from a dump in the United States. The house was constructed with three garage doors leaned against each other. They had a dirt floor. Pictures of Jesus hung on the wall and colorful flowers were in jars around the room. The front door was a bright red blanket.
The Women of the Colectivo hosted us for a day. They are ordinary women living with extraordinary courage and love. They work in maquiladoras, factories owned by US companies. Tijuana is the television-making capital of the world. If you own a television, it is very likely that it was put together by poor women in Tijuana. They work long hours for very little pay. There is no security for them. They tell of going to work in the morning, only to find that the factory has closed down and moved to India or someplace where labor can be hired for less money.
So one day, one of the poor women in Tijuana, Maria, decided to stand up for herself and her family. After her factory closed down and moved away overnight, she wrote to the factory owners and insisted on being given severance pay. It is likely that her first letter was thrown in the trash if it was opened and read at all. Maria wrote again and again. Then a group of environmental justice activists in San Diego learned about Maria and her requests for severance pay. They knew about the toxic waste that the factory had spewed into the air and into the water in Tijuana. They knew about the toxic materials the factory left behind. They knew about the high number of birth defects in babies born to women working in the maquiladoras.
The San Diego activists chose to get to know Maria and her need for justice. They recruited others to help her in her fight for severance pay. She got what she asked for. And she got an office where she and twelve other women work tirelessly to educate mothers and their children about their rights and how to take care of the land and its people.
We gathered in their office and we were fed. The women served us tostados and fruit punch. I was moved to tears by their generosity as they put food in front of us. They were not afraid of going hungry. They were not worried about sharing their limited resources. They were happy to connect with us and to tell us their story.
I wanted to know, since the living conditions are so dreadful and dangerous in Tijuana, why the women stay. “Why don’t you leave Tijuana?”
Maria responded to my question and Carlos translated. “I do not stay in Tijuana for myself. I stay in Tijuana and I work for justice because the earth depends on me. She is my mother. She gives me life and because of the earth’s goodness, I was able to give life to my children. We work together: me, the air, the water, the soil. Together we make life. The earth is being abused by those who love personal profit more than they love life itself. I am here and I will stay here in Tijuana because I love life and I want justice.”
I truly admire this kind of love, the kind of love so strong and so fierce that it leaves no room for fear. Think how much the rest of us would lose if there were not people around us who love so much that their fear cannot find a place to stay.
Moving fear out of love’s way doesn’t require extraordinary heroics. It does require an investment in faith. Not just on Sunday and not just when everything is in order and running smoothly. Moving fear out and making room for love requires the willingness to connect with others, to let go of control and to let others know that we need help. It requires humility.
I’ve been thinking lately that one of our barriers to being truly in love with life is our privilege and convenience. We’ve grown attached to our stuff and keeping it safe. So attached to material things that we think keeping our stuff safe is the same as nurturing our soul and the love in our life. We have made keeping up with our car, homes, computers and cell phones the center of our soul. And we’re withering because of it. We have become easy targets for the fear-mongers because of it.
Do something different this week. Have lunch with a stranger and listen to their story. See how much your soul is nourished by that simple act.  Go without one meal and spend that hour in prayer and reflection. Take a day off from the internet, email and television and, instead, listen for God’s call in your life. Find a way to empower someone in our city who has been marginalized and find the flood of love that fills your soul. Ask someone for help. Tell them you need help letting go of your fears and let them be your teacher. We need each other as we become all that God hoped we would be. Leave the door open so fear can exit and love can find a way in to help you.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Rocking Chair Marathon

It was the summer of 1972, in Jackson, Tennessee. I was part of the pizza-making team at Village Inn Pizza Parlor. Casey Jones Museum & Old Country Store (then located on the corner of Airways Boulevard and the Hwy 45 Bypass) invited all the businesses in town to send a representative to their store for a Rocking Chair Marathon.
It was a big deal and people all over town were talking about it. The marathon winner would take home big prizes like a new washer and dryer from a local appliance store. The winning business would get plenty of free advertising for having an employee who could sit and rock for longer than anyone else in Jackson. I volunteered to represent our team. Mr. Kilburn, the store’s owner, was as enthusiastic as I was. I wanted to win that washer-dryer. I was tired of taking baskets of dirty clothes to the laundromat. Mr. Kilburn wanted to sell more pizzas. We high-fived each other and agreed to win this challenge!
There was carnival excitement on Saturday morning as the rocking chairs were lined up, decorated and put into motion by happy competitors. I was confident in my paisley halter-top and cut-off blue jeans. A baby sat in a tiny rocker in front of me. She was rocking for an infant apparel business. An elderly woman rocked beside me, representing the Senior Centers in town. Helium balloons floated over our heads. Cotton candy and corn dogs were consumed by the crowds as they walked along, looking at us in our rocking chairs. High school bands marched by, helping us all to rock with a shared beat. Back and forth. Back and forth. Grinning and waving. “Make us proud!” Mr. Kilburn said as he fastened the Village Inn logo to the back of my chair.
The sun went down and the crowd went home. As the air grew cooler, I realized I was sunburned from the top of my head to the top of my bare feet. I kept rocking. There were volunteers stationed around the lot, making sure the chairs kept moving. To stop rocking was to be disqualified. We all had food and drink at our sides, gifts left by our friends and supporters. Porta-potties were there for our convenience and we were given timed breaks to use them. I watched as my competitors diminished in number. The stillness of the long, dark hours made staying awake too much of a challenge. Those who snored attracted the attention of the volunteers, who kindly informed the sleeping beauties that they were out of the marathon.
The sun came up and beamed brightly on my burned skin. Mr. Kilburn came by and asked me, “What can I bring you for breakfast?” I wanted donuts and coffee. He raced off to get it. I was glad to be surrounded by music, laughter and onlookers as people stopped by on their way to church and after Sunday dinner. We rocked. Back and forth. Back and forth. Just before the sun went down that evening, I stood to take a bathroom break and I had no idea which way to go. A volunteer took me by the hand and led me to the door of the porta-potty. I needed his help, again, when I returned to my rocking chair. The disorientation was unnerving but I was rocking. I was going to win that washer-dryer and I was going to make Mr. Kilburn feel proud! I stopped going to the porta-potty and just peed my pants after that. I smelled badly, but I kept rocking.
The number of competitors was down to twelve as darkness settled in on Sunday  night. The Old Country Store staff had not expected the marathon to extend into the work week. Cub Scouts were enlisted to help. The little boys had rulers and they were using them to measure the distance of our rocking back and forth. We had to rock six inches in order to remain in the marathon. At about 3:00 on Monday morning, I was still rocking when I looked over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be an evil dwarf coming toward me, aiming a pistol at my head. I flung my arm out and swatted hard at the gun. The Cub Scout’s ruler went flying through the air and I came to my senses briefly, enough to mutter a garbled apology to the boy who was cautiously reaching for his blue and gold cap at my feet.
Just before Mr. Kilburn came by and asked what I wanted for breakfast, I got it all figured out. This was a conspiracy born from an alliance between Rev. Billy Graham and President Nixon. Those men were passengers in the helicopter that kept circling overhead and they were watching us, taking pictures and laughing about how foolish we were. This marathon was their idea! They were trying to prove, for some reason, that people in Jackson, Tennessee were utter fools. We would sit and rock night and day, through sun and rain, just to win some household appliances! Once I figured that out, I was wide awake and energized by my fury! Mr. Kilburn seemed unaware of what was going on as he cheerily ran to my side and took my breakfast order. I decided he had lived in Jackson, Tennessee for far too long!
That's when my mind left me. I don't know where it went exactly, maybe chasing after Mr. Kilburn and my breakfast order. I stood up. I raised my arms up over my head and started walking. “Where are you going?” One of my co-workers was there by my side.
“I’m going to find a microphone so I can tell everybody what’s going on here!” I shouted. “We are making fools out of ourselves! This is a bad joke on all of us!”
One of the pizza makers got me into a car and took me home. A girl friend ran the tub full of hot water so I could sit and soak before I got into bed. A neighbor woman came to the door and hollered through the screen, “Was Elaine the winner in the rocking chair marathon?”
“No, she was not!" I sat up in the tub and yelled from the bathroom. "And, whatever you do, don’t vote Republican in the next election!”
Then I slept. I slept for sixteen hours and when I woke up, I read in the Jackson Sun about the marathon winner. She worked for a bank and she rocked until 7:00 on Tuesday morning. I don’t remember her name. I imagine she is still  enjoying that washer-dryer and I suspect there are autographed pictures of Billy Graham and Richard Nixon hanging on the wall above them.
Mr. Kilburn was happy that Village Inn had been represented. I was happy that my mind went back to normal, back to what "normal" is for me. I had enough sense to find my way to the laundromat with my baskets of dirty clothes. I didn't win the marathon but I learned to respect the power of sun-block , hydration and a good night's sleep.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Marriage Equality


November 26, 2015 

It is Thanksgiving morning. A cloudy sky and a cool breeze contribute to the ambience of this holiday that is set aside for gratitude. I look at the gold band on my ring finger and I am touched by how deeply that ring has affected me. The wedding ceremony, when Anna made promises and placed it on my finger, was so much more than what I had expected or imagined it would be. My gratitude for the right to marry and for the experience of being married is as shiny and precious as the gold of this ring.

We invited our friend, Dr. Mary Lin Hudson, to officiate our wedding. She teaches with me at the seminary. Having Mary Lin to stand before us allowed a mix of the authority of the state as well as the intimacy of our friendship. She shared a lovely homily, capturing the essence of who we are as individuals and as a couple. After sixteen years of living together, we have developed an identity as a successful couple. Our friends laughed with us as Mary Lin referred to us as “Martha and Mary,” one in the kitchen working while the other entertains guests in the living room.  

We exchanged vows and my emotions overwhelmed me, rendering my voice down to little more than a squeak. Anna shed tears as she spoke her vows. I sobbed. Upon reflection, I realize that speaking those vows, making promises for the rest of our lives, lifted up our mortality and highlighted our deep need for trust, truth and faithfulness. My great fear in life is abandonment. My life story has given me reason to believe that the best and most beloved relationships can be yanked away without a word of warning. And so I offered my vows, and with the words came sobs from my childhood, begging Anna to stay with me forever. The wedding gave me the opportunity to express those fears and simultaneously to have those fears relieved. This public, legal ceremony was full of grace.

The most challenging aspect of planning our wedding was the question of whom to invite. Weddings cost money and we could not afford to invite everybody. The caterer needed a head count and every head costs a dollar amount. We wanted to be generous and we wanted our guests to be wined, dined and comfortable. We chose Stonewall Hall as our venue because it is lovely and in our neighborhood. It is a big room but not big enough to hold every one of our friends and their families. So we had to make choices on our invitation list. It was not easy.

Our friends entered the door with bright smiles as they arrived on a bitterly cold day with mist in the air. Three beautiful five-year-old girls arrived and took seriously their duty to pass out little gifts to each guest. Our friend, Sharon, orchestrated the making of “Love Links,” my idea to connect our guests to each other and to us as part of the ceremony. My daughter, Jennifer, brought recorded music for gathering and dancing. A string trio set up their instruments, adding to the elegance in the space. A photographer scurried about, looking for adequate light and clicking shots here and there. The coconut cake, lovingly baked by Carrie, took its rightful place on a platform and it looked spectacular! Joy was everywhere.

I had expected the wedding to be fun. I was not aware of how palpable the love of our friends would be as Anna and I stood face to face and exchanged our vows. I have officiated many weddings. I have worked with couples to plan how the ceremony will be ordered and what words will be said. But it is only in being the bride that I felt the communal significance of a wedding. The love of our friends surrounded us. Anna and I both felt lifted up by that love and we also felt how our wedding day was a source of strength and hope for our guests. Together, we were an inspired congregation, longing for the best in all of our relationships, in all of our shared struggles and victories.

In truth, the Holy Spirit was present and gave us a rich and mystical blessing. I have never been happier and I have never felt so free. The secret of a good life is learning how to accept the love that created us and brought us here. I have had trouble believing that anyone can really love me. I have spent many hours in the offices of various therapists as I have talked on and on about how to trust that I am indeed loveable. The strong wind of the Spirit blew through Stonewall Hall and carried away the detritus of that scar tissue. The wedding was a sacred thing, a chance for God’s love to come to earth and touch all of us at once.  

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to the people at First Baptist Church here in Memphis and to tell them the story of how I came to be both a Christian and a woman-loving-woman. I sat on the platform with Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest and a man who loves men. We told our life stories and then we took questions from the congregation. One man asked me, “Why do you want to marry? Why do you need that right?”

I laughed and told him that Anna wondered the same thing. Being married was my idea and I had to talk a good talk in my effort to convince my partner that getting married would be in both our best interests. Sitting in the Baptist Church, I answered, “I want to be married because we CAN be married. People have struggled long and hard to win this legal battle and I want to honor their work by taking advantage of SCOTUS’ ruling.”

Now that the wedding is over, the ring is on my finger and our license has been signed and returned to the office of the Shelby County Court Clerk, my answer is much wider and fuller. I realize how secure I feel, now that we are married. If anything happens to either Anna or me, if an accident occurs or there is some sort of disaster, there will be no confusion about whom to contact as our next of kin. We are not roommates, homeowners or friends. We are married. She is my wife. I am her wife. It is recorded in legal documents and that means more to me now than I knew it would mean to me then.

There is something about being married that touches deeply our personal exchanges. I feel free now to hold the hand of my wife in public and to kiss her on the lips when we stand together in our driveway. It is no secret. There is no shame. We are a happily married couple, living the American dream.