Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Ordinary Baby

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
Christmas Day/ 2011
Psalm 98
John 1: 1-14

It was 1992. And I was a seminary student at Memphis Theological Seminary. I was spending my time studying, reading, writing papers while I served as pastor at a rural United Methodist Church. I remember it was a Tuesday night and I was at the church after a full day of classes. I was getting ready for final exams. A group of us were in the church where the mothers and children were rehearsing the Christmas pageant. There were sheep, cows, goats, angels, shepherds, wise men on the platform. Grandmothers were huddled, talking about costumes and how best to make a child look like a sheep and not like a squirrel. The pianist was trying to get everyone’s attention so we could start practicing our songs. That’s when I noticed that Karen was crying.

The mother of four children: three rowdy boys (ages 15, 14 and 9) and a dainty and darling 4 year old girl. Karen had her hands full. She was new to the church. Karen had only recently moved into the small town. She and her husband, Rick, wanted to live in the country where the boys had room to run and play. And they had found a house, a great deal, that met their needs. Karen worked part-time as a teacher’s assistant. Rick worked for the Tupperware Plant.

Karen was crying. So after the rehearsal I stopped her by the front doors to the church and asked about that. She told me that she had heard from her sister earlier that day. Her sister was running from the law and she was living in an old beat up car. There was a three month old baby girl in that beat up car with Karen’s sister. Karen’s niece. Her sister was apparently in and out of trouble with drug addition, drug sales and theft. Karen said her sister wanted to stop running. She was ready to turn herself in. But she didn’t want the state to take her baby girl. She was in touch with Karen asking her to agree to take the baby. This was terribly frustrating to Karen. She pointed at her four year old daughter and told me, “That’s my daughter now because I adopted her from my sister. But I can’t keep raising and paying for the babies my sister has.” Karen was the first one to tell me about the closing of the Tupperware plant. Rick would be losing his job in a matter of weeks. Many people in our church would soon be looking for new jobs when the plant moved to India.

I put my arm around Karen’s shoulder and said a brief prayer with her before she got in the van and drove home. I could feel Karen’s despair and her anger at her sister. I could also feel her love for a sister who just had not been able to get her life in order. Being a pastor presents so many opportunities to feel helpless. And this was one of those situations. I wondered what I could do, what the church could do beyond loving Karen and her family, beyond praying for them. I wondered what it was like to be three months old and living in a car. Karen said her sister’s car had no back window but was wide open to the wind and rain. I couldn’t imagine it; it was too awful.

On Friday morning I had no classes at the seminary so I was not rushing to get in my car and drive to Memphis. I drank my coffee and stared out the front window of the parsonage. I cleared my mind and listened for a while. I was shocked and a little afraid of what I heard in the silence. God seemed to be suggesting that I could open my heart and home to provide a safe place for that baby. Why not? The more I thought about it the more I realized I had to make the suggestion. After that I would leave the response up to Karen and her sister. I called Karen. “Is your sister still looking for a place to leave her baby?”

It was December 9th. And at 9:00 that night there was a knock on the kitchen door. My daughter, Jennifer, and I went to open it and we received into our arms a little baby girl. “What’s her name?” I asked Karen who was getting a cardboard box of the baby’s things out of her van.

“Her name is Katie Grace and if she could talk she would tell you how thankful she is to be with you guys right now.”

Karen left and Jennifer and I looked in the box. There were plastic bottles and a can of Similac. One diaper. No change of clothes. A dirty blanket. And a plastic butterfly. Tobacco from broken cigarettes clung to everything. I put the bottles and some nipples in a pot of hot water and began to boil them. Jennifer held the baby at the table and sang to her. After we fed Katie Grace all of us went to WalMart on the highway and bought diapers. So many styles and brands!! I had not had a baby around for nearly seventeen years. Back when Jennifer was in diapers the choices were not overwhelming. We chose a box of diapers and we got more Similac. And we bought an outfit that looked like it might fit her. The outfit she had on was too small and the snaps were torn.

I had a huge wicker basket that I had used to hold toys for children at the local shelter. It seemed the right size for Katie Grace. I put two pillows in the basket and put a sheet over them. Then I laid her down to sleep. She slept from eleven o’clock until five. I got up and fed her again. Jennifer came into the living room and we turned the light on. That baby, Katie Grace, looked like an entirely different baby than the one we had met at 9:00 the night before. That baby had looked pinched and drawn, fearful. One night’s rest had made this baby look alert, curious, her face full and soft. “Wow Mom! Look how different she is.” It was amazing.

That day, a Saturday, we had a house filled with adoring visitors. Church families came to see the parsonage baby. By noon we had two car seats, a crib, a play pen, and beautiful booties of many colors, frilly dresses from a swanky shop in town, night gowns, bibs, boxes and boxes of diapers. Somebody even brought a picture of two angels praying and we hung that on the wall over Katie Grace’s crib. People brought food and fed all of us just so they could be with us and admire the baby for a while. It was an all day party.

That evening Jennifer and I started decorating the house for Christmas. Curtis Vaughn had brought our tree and stood it up in the front window. We put the lights on it and hung ornaments. We put a wreath on the front door. Katie Grace watched it all while we sang Christmas carols to her.

She wore a red velvet dress to church on Sunday. She was the church’s baby. When I went to the seminary for class Katie Grace stayed with church ladies who stared at her and made a fuss over her all day long. She went to the Tuesday night rehearsals for the Christmas pageant and Vivian Long made a special costume for Katie Grace. Karen thanked us all over and over again.

The Tupperware plant closed on Christmas Eve. Six church families were affected by it. There wasn’t another plant of that size anywhere near so people would soon be considering relocation or job training for new careers. It was a stressful time and might have been a sad time. But we had a Christmas pageant to attend, cakes to eat and gifts to share.

The cows came in from the sides of the sanctuary and the sheep followed. They stood in the bundles of hay by the manger. They sang while the holy family slowly took their places. Justine, a twelve year old girl with bright eyes and a blue shawl over her head, put her child down in the manger. Katie Grace kicked and reached for the air above her head while the children sang. Her pink booties were visible above the edge of the wooden manger. It couldn’t have been any better. This ordinary baby who had been living in a beat up car was now resting in the manger while the shepherds and the wise men gathered around her.

The Word was made flesh and came to live among us—full of grace and glory. Bringing us together. Bringing out the best in all of us. Reminding us, even in the toughest times, that we are not alone or forgotten. The Word was made flesh and came to live among us bringing hope and joy. An ordinary baby created the extraordinary. By the presence of love among us our eyes have been opened to see the holiness of our ordinary lives.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Coming Home With Shouts of Joy

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
December 11, 2011

Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Learning to trust the God who created us is the biggest challenge of our lives. All of us will grow older. Some of us will grow fatter. Some of us will grow thinner. Any of us can grow smarter with study and effort. But what truly matters in life is the ability to grow deeper into trust: trusting ourselves, trusting others and trusting God.

I was raised in a very religious family. We were as close to God as you can get without being Jesus himself. We were Nazarene people, called unto holiness. We were pious people. We lived our lives in such a way that God couldn’t possibly find anything not to like about us. Somebody somewhere had studied what God likes best and we were doing it. That’s what I thought. I truly felt sorry for people who were not Nazarene because I believed they were not as close to God’s heart as we were.

There were members of my church family who were saved from their sins AND sanctified entirely. My understanding was that they were no longer bothered by sin.

Of course I wanted this same experience, this blessed assurance that I was right with God and bound to stay that way forever. So I went down to the altar every Sunday night and during fall and summer revivals. I implored God to make me perfect too. But I knew it didn’t take because the very next day I would get out of bed and get mad at my brother, Stanley. I would call him a name. He would call me a name. Somebody would push and then there was a shove. And it was clear that I was not free from sin. I was not sanctified.

So I came up with a plan. In order to gain God’s favor and be perfect I needed to be busy with God’s work. I was seven years old. It was the fall revival. Rev. Tom Jernigan was our evangelist and his wife, Juanita, was our special singer. On Friday night I went down to the altar and asked God to save and sanctify me.

The next morning I got out of bed and I went outside before Stanley could have a chance to annoy me. I simply didn’t look at him. I carried my Bible outside. I had a refrigerator box waiting for me. I had gotten it from Chases Home Appliance Store on Friday afternoon. I put the box on the corner right in front of the church at First Avenue and Second Street. Cut a door in it. Then I went back inside the church and got the heavy brass cross off the communion table. I got a ladder and put that cross on top of the box so it was clear that this was not just a cardboard box but a church. A cardboard church. I held my open bible in my hands as I sang “Just as I Am without One Plea.”

People were driving up and parking, getting their children out of the car for Saturday morning shopping downtown and they were being wooed into the arms of God by a very young and fervent evangelist whose hair had not yet been combed.

“Won’t you come?” I pleaded with the people who passed by. “Won’t you give your life to Jesus before it’s too late?” Mothers and fathers got between their children and me, walking in the street to keep a safe distance. Some nodded politely. An old black man stood and watched me from across the street. He scratched his chin and I thought I had a convert for a minute. But he walked away shaking his head and saying, “Lawd. Lawd.”

I was feeling hungry and cranky when my brother Stanley came by. I knew him well enough to know he was far beyond saving so I didn’t even try. “Go away!” I warned him.

He didn’t go away. He started grinning at me in a way that let me know he thought I was a fool. I stiffened as he came near my cardboard church. “I said go away!” He snorted at me and peered inside the box. That made me mad so I socked him and when he fell against the box that made the heavy brass cross topple off the top of the cardboard church. And clunk! It smacked my brother in the head. Cut a wide gash that started pouring blood down his neck and across his back. I had to call my mother and she had to apply pressure.

Mrs. Juanita Jernigan rode with us to the Emergency Room. And that’s where I was—sitting in a hospital with antiseptic smells all around me –the first time I gave up on the struggle to be perfect.

It’s hard to be human. Have you ever noticed that? The problem is: Sometimes we look in the mirror and we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t love much about ourselves --if we were God. And when we make God as small-minded as we are then it’s pretty hard to trust anything in this life.

Religion, at its best, ought to help us appreciate being who we are-- just as we are. Religion ought to help us appreciate the opportunity to live our lives. It ought to affirm our authenticity rather than squeeze us into tiny boxes. I am concerned about religious teaching that molds people into manufactured images of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. Religion is about real relationships: our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. Seems to me that religion ought to teach us how to trust God more while we worry less about our own shortcomings. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves. This is God's world and we are here because God loves us.

You may have heard the NPR story, an interview by Guy Raz on “All Things Considered,” with Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Reverend Billy Graham. Anne Graham has become an influential preacher. She’s 63 years old. Apparently huge crowds in this country and abroad, come to hear her preach. She’s been called an evangelical feminist and she likes that description. She says an evangelical feminist is a woman who knows what she believes, has strong convictions and the courage to stand up for them regardless of limitations other people or institutions want to impose on her.

She tells about her parents’ disapproval when she began teaching a Bible class 35 years ago. There was conflict in the beginning of Anne’s public ministry. Billy and Ruth Graham believed that their daughter’s ministry was meant to be in the home as a devoted wife and mother. But Anne felt like God’s intention for her was more important and Anne believes that God knows her better than her parents know her. So when God called her to teach and preach-- she did. Anne says, “I’m living my life for an audience of one. I’ve learned to trust God.”

And as the years have passed, Billy and Ruth Graham have been impressed by their daughter’s faith and the effectiveness of her ministry. Billy Graham has repeatedly said that Anne is the best preacher in the family.

Learning to trust God is the biggest challenge of our lives.

The therapist and writer, Scott Peck, names four stages of spiritual development that we go through in life: 1.) Chaotic/antisocial, 2.) Formal/ institutional, 3.) Skeptic/individual, 4.) Mystic/ Communal. We are not all in the same place spiritually. We grow into trust at different times even as the love of God is revealed to us in different ways.

Our spiritual development doesn’t progress in a straight line going steadily from birth to death. It’s circular. We reach back into the past and pull memories into this moment, allowing memories to inform us and shape our identities. We reach into the future and use the hope we find there to sustain us for getting through the present hour. We open ourselves and allow other people to circle into our lives and experiences. We circle into the lives of others who are willing to include us in their journeys. Spiritual development is more of a spiral than a straight line.

In the letter to the Thessalonians we read instructions: to praise God, to pray, give thanks, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil. These practices are effective tools for spiritual development and growth. I have come to a place in my life where each day begins with scripture reading, prayer, journaling and listening for God’s responses and direction for the day. Our spiritual disciplines draw us closer to God and allow us to see more of God’s reflection in ourselves. That reflection builds trust and feeds our hope.

But it is not our spiritual disciplines that sanctify us and make us blameless. It is God who will sanctify us and make us blameless. And according to Thessalonians: God will do this. It is God’s work and we have simply to trust in God and not ourselves. Being sanctified is not about being pious and perfect. We are sanctified when we celebrate the gift of our own lives and the presence of God's love in it.

We are moving toward the manger. The star shines brightly over our heads as we travel toward Bethlehem. It’s hard to believe that God would come to live among us, that God would care enough about us to join us here on earth, to live among us.

But there are so many things about God we don’t understand. So we do the best we can to trust.

The Psalmist says: The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced.

May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
May those who go out weeping
come home with shouts of joy.

In our joy and in our sorrow—it is God who earns our trust. It is God who sustains our hope now and always.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

ICU Waiting Room

Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Hospitals are places where we go when we are so sick or so injured that we have no choice but to let go and allow the professionals to take control of our lives. They say when we will eat if we get to eat at all. The hospital controls when the lights will go out and when we can have visitors. Nurses and respiratory therapists control the beeps and buzzes that indicate patients are still alive. Nurses, therapists and doctors follow protocols, pump us full of fluids and prescriptions, roll us from x-ray to surgery and keep their eyes on the monitors that measure how we’re doing. We wouldn’t go through all of this unless we had no choice.

The ICU is a particularly fast paced unit in the hospital. ICU nurses live in a face to face struggle against death. A heart stops beating and the nurse instantly starts chest compressions while reaching with her foot to drag an IV pole closer to the patient and at the same time holding a bag of normal saline between her teeth. ICU nurses don’t really have time to focus on compassionate communication. This is not to say that ICU nurses are cold hearted but it is to say that they have lots of courage. They’re equipped with adequate confidence. Have to be. Because they’re fighting Death.

As patients, family members and visitors—we feel lost and intimidated by all of the sounds, smells and the absolute authority of the hospital system. This is no Sunday picnic or holiday parade. We’re scared. We’re grateful for the treatments, medicines and healing. But we’re anxious and fearful the entire time we’re inside the hospital system.

St Joseph Hospital was a special place here in Memphis. The sisters ran St Joseph as a healing center, a place where people mattered. All people who entered the doors were to be received with respect and compassion. I worked weekends in their ICU Waiting Room. I was the liaison between the family in the Waiting Room and the nurses in the ICU. I made coffee, kept the waiting room neat and listened to people’s stories.

Communities would form in that small room with chairs around three walls.
One of the great fruits born of suffering is compassion. Tolstoy said that our great duty as humans is to sew the seed of compassion in each other’s hearts. This happens—for the most part—in ICU Waiting Rooms. Everyone is suffering so everyone becomes family.

I remember a tall Texan, Stewart, a middle aged man who was at the hospital because his wife, Elizabeth, had had a stroke while they were visiting in town. They had been walking on Beale Street when her speech suddenly slurred and she slumped over. Stewart sat and waited. He had a successful real estate business in Austin. He sat with his arms crossed, his long legs and fancy boots stretched out across the floor. He heaved great sighs of exasperation. His mantra was forceful and clear: I really don’t have time for this!”

Sue sat and waited too. Sue was short and round. She looked comfortable in her sweat pants and house slippers. She read romance novels or stared at the TV. Her husband’s kidneys were failing and his heart was struggling too. Information about him from the nurses wasn’t encouraging. Sue cried easily and often. Her mantra was painful: I wonder if I am to blame. I wonder if I fed Howard the wrong food. I should have made him stop drinking a long time ago…

Crystal, a beautiful ballroom dance instructor whose husband had been in a motorcycle accident, had a large group of friends and family who poured through the room in support of her and her husband. Even the media paid attention to Crystal. It was a dramatic story, a hit and run, and the journalists kept it in the papers for a few days. People brought sandwiches and drinks for her. There were people scheduled to keep company with Crystal around the clock. She was wrapped in a blanket and propped with a pillow. Her mantra: Why? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to us?

Crystal was gracious and generous. She shared with the other people in the ICU Waiting Room. Tuna sandwiches, potato chips, Oreos and lemonade. She had a huge cooler stocked at her side. Stewart, the Texan, was finally convinced it would be OK for him to accept a sandwich from Crystal. It was easy to see how difficult it was for Stewart to need something from her, from anyone. He gave his business card to everyone who came into the waiting room. He wanted to be seen as a man at work, not a man who was frightened half to death that things could get worse for Elizabeth—and him.

Sue accepted a sandwich, a bag of chips from Crystal. Sue’s lips trembled when she said, “Thank you.” She didn’t feel as though she deserved kindness and generosity. That was painful to see. Sue’s self esteem was so low it was almost a medical emergency on its own—there in the midst of this ICU experience.

Rhonda sat in the corner all alone. Her hair was long and stringy. One of Sue’s grandsons backed up to Sue and whispered so we could all hear him. “Is that lady a witch?” Sue hushed the boy but we could all see why he had made the connection. Rhonda was bony and her nose was sharp. Rhonda kept her eyes on her lap and the needlework in her hands. She was busy constantly-crocheting.

The nurses told me that Rhonda’s daughter, now thirty-five yeas old, was born with cerebral palsy. The daughter was on life support in the ICU. Rhonda didn’t accept sandwiches. She wouldn’t accept prayers when the chaplain stopped by. People in the waiting room learned quickly to stay away from Rhonda. She didn’t have to speak for all of us to know her mantra: Who cares? Who really gives a rip?

Sometimes suffering brings a deep darkness. The light goes out. Faith fades into the distance. Sometimes pain takes people into a place of desolation.

Catholic school girls came through the waiting room, whole classes of them came through wearing their nice uniforms and sweet smiles. They gave boxes of Kleenex and packages of thick socks to people around the room. Rhonda shrugged them off with a sniff and a scowl.

An odd little man, skinny, wiry and wearing a brown suit that was at least two sizes too big, scampered through the waiting room twice a day, morning and night. He brought tracts, slick Christian pamphlets that asked: If you were to die today do you know where your soul would spend eternity? Sue’s grandsons made paper airplanes with those tracts and flew them around the room.

I made coffee and carried the trash out. Church people brought newer magazines to stack on the coffee table. They took the old worn ones away. I went back to the unit every hour to check with the nurses. I looked in on patients. Respirators whirred. Vital sign monitors beeped. Air beds whooshed. Human beings were hard to distinguish under the machinery and the steady activity around them. “No change!” The nurses knew what I wanted to know. They didn’t have to stop working to give me the necessary information.

People can be poor in so many ways. Poverty affects our pocketbook and bank accounts. But poverty can affect our spirit. Anxiety and fear can open a door in our soul and drain away our hope. I fought that kind of poverty of spirit sometimes while I worked in the ICU waiting room. So many people didn’t get better. And if I was fighting to maintain hope—those family members and friends were fighting twice as hard.

I went back to the waiting room and family members scooted quickly to the edges of their chairs and looked at my face—searching for something of hope, some news that would claim a miracle was happening for them and their loved one. I spoke with what I hoped was a reassuring smile and tone: No changes yet. Everything is stable right now.

But then there were the times when I was summoned to the back by way of the intercom system. “Ms Blanchard, could you come back here please?” That was never good. The unit secretary only called for me when someone’s condition went from bad to worse. The family members were alert for the intercom and its messages.

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, glanced around the room with a nod and went back. Norma, the nurse, was doing chest percussions. She was yelling at the patient, “Come on now! Come on now! Don’t you even think about giving up!” The on-call doctors and respiratory therapists were surrounding the bed. Norma shouted, “BP is dropping!” The doctor shouted orders. A nurse took a small bag from the crash cart and hooked it to Elizabeth’s IV line.

Elizabeth, the wife of the tall Texan. I saw Stewart in my mind’s eye, sitting out there in the waiting room, and sitting up as tall as he could sit, eager to take his wife out of here and get back to normal. He had told us all repeatedly about important real estate closings that required his presence and signature back in Austin. Normal would never be the same for Stewart.

I watched as the activity slowed down around Elizabeth’s bed. Shoulders slumped. Dr. Cook called it. Norma cursed. She hated to lose in a struggle with death. So she moved on to the next room, the next patient. Somebody else pulled the sheet up over Elizabeth’s face.

It takes a minute for people to get it together. Hands were washed. Other patients needed stat meds. There was always that burst of energy after a death when the nurses and staff wanted to escape, to do anything other than the inevitable—tell the family: All that could be done was done. It is over. We’re sorry.

Dr. Cook and Norma followed me through the locked doors and I motioned for Stewart to follow us into the small Family Room, a closet sized space reserved for bad news. Stewart groaned. I think he was trying to say the word: No. I looked at him and anger filled his features, made him look like a mountain lion crouched for the pounce. He didn’t make a sound but his face said so much: No it can’t be. No! I won’t allow it! No! I won’t follow you into that tiny space to hear that nothing more can be done, that I am all alone.

It was Sue, the one in her baggy sweat pants, who found the strength and courage to move quickly to Stewart’s side. She gently put one hand under his arm and lifted the man out of his chair. The two of them walked across the room to the doctor and nurse who reached out to support Stewart. Sue stepped back. It was a dance, a sweet dance initiated by somebody who has total confidence in her capacity to share compassion.

I stayed in the waiting room with the others while the doctor, the nurse and the chaplain gave Stewart some time and space to begin taking in the news. It didn’t take long. They all had more patients to see, more work to be done, more lives to save. Stewart came back in the waiting room and sat back down in the chair that had faithfully held his anxious hopes and fears for days.

One of Sue’s grandsons, an eight year old, was the first to notice Rhonda. She had put down her needlework and she was looking around the room. Tears were running like two rivers across her wrinkled cheeks. The little boy ran over to Rhonda and put his head in her lap. “It’s Ok, lady. It’s gonna be OK.” She cupped his head with her bony hand. And then she stood.

Rhonda walked over to Stewart and wrapped the man in the afghan she had been making all these days. The bright colors focused us. And the kindness of Rhonda’s gesture gave Stewart permission to cry. Leaning into Rhonda’s belly, he allowed all of us to carry some of his terrible grief. We clumped up in a tight circle and held each other.

Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Prepare the way. Make straight a highway. Every valley shall be lifted up. Every mountain made low. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.

It is a universal human need: to belong, to be part of a sacred circle, to be comforted by the compassion of others, to have our own compassion stirred in the circle of human connection.

We are all in some sort of waiting room. We need the comfort of community while we wait.

We are here together in this place and time. And for the journey we have been provided with food and assurances that our journey together is meaningful and full of hope. Our journey will lead us all home. And so it is that we gather together at this table where all are welcome and all are included and all are connected to eternal life and love. The way is prepared. You are invited to belong to those who journey on the way.


We Are God's People

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
November 27, 2011

We are God’s people. And we long for Christ’s return. We look forward to the day when creation will be fulfilled. No more hunger. No more war. No more unemployment. No more environmental pollution. We long for the day when Christ comes to claim creation as home, a safe and satisfying place to live. Home for all God’s people: Christ’s return is something to celebrate and nothing to fear.

Today we enter the season of Advent. We weed the garden of our souls; prepare the soil of our being for birth and new life. It is a time when we cultivate patience, allow ourselves to value the experience of waiting and pay attention to what it is that our soul longs to be and become in this season between what has been and what will be.

This season of Advent is the antithesis of what our current culture is all about. So be prepared for a challenge. It’s not easy to be patient when car horns are blowing at us, when the boss increases pressure on us to market and increase sales, when the wolf is at the front door and our last dollar went out the back door. When our best is misunderstood.

In this first week of Advent we are invited to pay attention to our longings. We long to live the best possible life while we wait for Christ’s return. We want to be among those who have done good things: made the world a better place, fed the hungry, cured the sick, visited prisoners, clothed the naked and set free those who have been oppressed.

We want to be at our best while we wait for the Kingdom to come. And we long to be rewarded along the way with some kind of assurance, some affirmation that we’re on the right path. For that kind of faith building we need each other. The community of faith, your church family, is absolutely foundational when it comes to the challenge of waiting patiently.

In 1990, I went to serve as pastor for a nice church in a rural area not all that far from here. The congregation was made up of cotton farmers and tomato farmers. A few had jobs at the bank or in the Tupperware Factory. My then husband, our daughter (Jennifer) and I were continuing to live in our home. The church I was serving had a parsonage right next door to the church and I planned to use the office there for sermon writing and committee meetings.

I drove up in the driveway at the parsonage with a pick up truck. I had boxes of books and office supplies in the back. As I arrived, a parade of women rushed out of the house. They didn’t speak and they didn’t look at me. Some walked hurriedly down the road while others got in their cars and drove away. I looked at the one woman who remained-- standing in the back door. I introduced myself. “I’m Elaine. I’ll be the pastor here…” She assured me that she knew who I was.

Her name was Carolyn and she was the church treasurer. She handed me a check. “I went ahead and wrote your check for this month so you won’t be worrying about whether or not we’re gonna pay you. And I hope you won’t be worrying yourself about all those women who say we’re all going to burn in hell if we listen to a woman preacher. You just try to ignore them, ya’ hear?”

Being the pastor for this congregation had its good features. I loved being part of a rural community where I was regularly given fresh produce, jams and breads. I loved the way people depended on the earth for their income and how their faith was connected to the work they did in the fields every day. I drank coffee at the one café in town, the place where everybody knew everybody. I enjoyed long, leisurely conversations sitting in the booth while my coffee cup was refilled over and over again.

Being the pastor for this congregation had its challenges. Every Sunday, right after Sunday school was over and before the organ played for the beginning of worship, a parade of women walked outside and went home. It was that same parade of women who had walked out of the parsonage on the day I arrived.

I longed to belong and to be valued—same as everybody does. I wanted to do a good job as the pastor, live my best life for the church, but there seemed to be little or nothing I could about my gender. So I took deep breaths and did the best I could while I waited. I waited for some kind of miracle, some sign that Christ had come among us. Some reassurance that I was not taking us all to hell in a handbag.

I was in seminary and studying while I served that church. I went to class Tuesday through Friday. I belonged to a group of strong and supportive women at the seminary. Gail, Emily, Martha, Ann and I talked about our church work and families. We prayed together. Wasn’t all that unusual for us to cry together. We trusted each other. So we told our stories and encouraged each other.

By my second year of seminary I was developing a new self confidence. My friends respected me and looked forward to my company. Professors at school were glad to have me in their classes. I felt like I belonged there and I knew I was valued at the seminary. Self respect was new for me and it had to do with my developing relationship with God as well as with my relationship with a community of faith. I developed an understanding of God that opened my eyes to see that God had created me carefully and with absolute love. I was and am worthy of respect.

I came to see that it was time for me to leave the abusive marriage I had been in for twenty-one years. Praying for him to change had not changed him. Praying to have more patience had only worn me down. I realized it was up to me to leave, to make the change that would improve life for Jennifer and me.

This was no easy thing. I had never imagined myself a divorced woman. But being divorced seemed much healthier than being abused forever. Jennifer and I moved into the parsonage next door to the church. My ex-husband broke into the parsonage and created drama, chaos. It was a mess. I was stressed. But I believed I had waited long enough for him to treat us with respect. It was time for me to respect myself and protect Jennifer.

I met with the pastor-parish relations committee and officially told them about my decision to take care of myself, to live in the parsonage. Katherine Vaughn, an older woman, a farmer’s wife and the mother of two men who were farmers, put her hand on my knee and looked into my eyes. “Well, if you need to be here in order to be safe then I thank God that we have this place for you and Jennifer to live in.” But not everyone in the room felt as merciful and understanding as Katherine did. Lois Powell sniffed, “Well, I’d like to know what we’re going to do when everyone stops coming to church. Because they will. It’s been hard enough having a woman for a preacher but having a divorced woman for a preacher will be the death of our little church.” And she began to cry. It was sad. For all of us.

We are all God’s people. We know in our heads that God loves us. I knew it. Katherine knew it. Lois knew it. But things can get difficult while we wait for Christ’s return. We need a personal and soulful experience of faith that connects us, encourages us and satisfies us while we wait for God’s Kingdom to come on Earth. We long to live our best lives while we wait for creation’s fulfillment. But waiting is hard on us. We lose our way if we’re not careful, if we don’t love each other into the best possible life together.

I was volunteering those days at the County Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence. Two afternoons a week I helped out around the house: cooked, cleaned and read to children.

It was November and I was sitting in the living room with Kelly, Emma and Dianne. The children were all in the play room. I was thinking out loud. I said, “I have no idea what Jennifer and I will do for Thanksgiving this year. For twenty-one years we have had Thanksgiving Dinner with her daddy’s family.” Then I looked up from studying my shoes. I was looking at three women who had run for their lives from Nebraska, Kansas and Georgia. Violence had shoved them out of their homes and into this secret shelter. They certainly had no idea what they would do for the holiday. Any tradition they might have valued was left behind. Nothing was familiar to them. They were just hoping to stay alive and keep their children alive.

So I made a suggestion. “How about we all have Thanksgiving dinner together—at my house?” This was met with happy faces! Emma told us about her fabulous pecan pie. Kelly made our mouths water talking about sweet potato casserole. Dianne said she could make a broccoli casserole so cheesy even children loved to eat it! It was settled. We would be together on Thanksgiving Day.

A few days later I was visiting parishioners and I saw Carl sitting on his front porch. I stopped the car. “You want to eat Thanksgiving Dinner at the parsonage this year?” I asked. He nodded happily. Carl didn’t speak. He hadn’t spoken in years, not since the night he was walking home from work and a car stopped. Three boys got out of the car, beat Carl so badly they thought they had left him dead, took his wallet out of his pocket and rolled him down into the grassy ditch beside the road. Carl survived. But the trauma had taken his voice. Carl came to church every Sunday, came late and left early. He sat on the back pew with his hat in his hands. “Come at noon,” I hollered. “No need to bring anything but yourself,” I told him. He waved me off happily.

So on Thanksgiving morning I got up early. Put a turkey in the oven. Started working on my dressing. The first knock on the door came at 8:00. It was Carolyn, the church treasurer. She had a cake. “I think it’s wonderful, what you’re doing here today,” she said. “We all do.” She hugged me. Then Katherine came with a green bean casserole. Amy came with a fruit salad. Barbara brought rolls and butter.

That same parade of women who had left the parsonage the day I moved in, that same parade of women who left church before I got up to preach… every one of them came through that kitchen door carrying something wonderful to eat. They wanted to contribute something; they wanted to be part of a good thing that was happening in their faith community. I could have turned the furnace off and stayed warm by the heat of all the love that arrived with those dishes.

I drove over to the shelter to pick up our guests. Jennifer had candles lit on the dining room table when we came in. We welcomed our guests: four children, three women and Carl. There were introductions all around. There was much amazement at all the food we would need to eat!

We took our seats around the table and I prayed. Plates were passed. We ate. The light of the candles made everything and everyone beautiful. The world seemed generous and safe as we smiled at each other and chatted. For now we were all safe and well cared for. Affirmed, valued. We belonged to each other.

I picked up the plates and went to the kitchen. That’s where I was when the music started. What? It was a harmonica. I went back into the dining room and there sat Carl at the head of the table, kicked back in his chair and playing a harmonica. “Give me that ol’ time religion; give me that ol’ time religion. Give me that ol’ time religion. It’s good enough for me.” He played and we sang old tunes that everybody knows. He played and we sang as the children played. He played and we sang as we washed the dishes together.

In this first week of Advent we are invited to pay attention to our longings. We long to live the best life possible while we wait for Christ to return, while we wait for God’s best plans to be fulfilled. We dream of getting it right, making the world a better place, writing a song that makes everybody sing together, coming up with a peace plan that puts an end to war. We dream of what it will be like when Christ comes again and hunger is no more, when all people will have enough of what they need to be satisfied and safe.

“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up,” says Paul Valery, a French Poet.

There was something about that Thanksgiving feast at the parsonage that woke some church people up. That parade of women must have waked up to realize some of their dreams for their church had come true.

They began to stay for worship after Sunday school. Carl moved from the back pew up toward the front. He dared to take a risk. And the women from the shelter started regularly coming in car loads to worship with us. They dared to take a risk. They brought their children and for the first time in years there was an ongoing childrens' Sunday school class. The church itself dared to take a risk.

We are God’s people. We long to belong, to be valued in a community of faith while we wait for Christ’s return. We long to live our best life. Our community of faith is absolutely foundational as we wait for Christ’s return, for God’s Kingdom to come on Earth.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Three Poems for Jennifer

For Jennifer
(On her 35th Birthday)

We lived in a trailer park
off highway 72
where you were conceived.
I stripped and scraped
the paint off an old crib from a family attic.
Worked in the sun
on the gravel driveway
where the neighbors could see
that something important was happening
I painted it pale yellow
to welcome you
and your awakenings
with the soft light of dawn.

You were so tiny.
Your hair cupped your face –
your forehead, temple, back of your neck –
curved perfection.
Soft, curious, wild.
Anything was possible.

The crib had wheels;
it rolled.
The trailer rolled into the back of our memories
almost forgotten.
You have lived from place to place
and done your best to store up treasures
at each address.

I am not the best mother that has ever lived,
stripped and scraped by time.
But the pale yellow still rises each morning
with the promise
that something important is happening


Pork chop

Your grandmother saw it first-
my belly was contracting rhythmically.
You were knocking at the door,
ready to be born.
She stood from the table --
Muse Street dining room
under the old man praying
over a loaf of bread –
We left pork chops, peas and mashed potatoes
We could eat later
when your face was in full bloom.
The old man never moved --
never stopped praying.

She put on a pink pantsuit,
combed her hair--
greased her lips with color.
She was young again.
You were coming --
a new generation.
A chance to start over,
to get it right this time.


My Daughter

When I can blow
the fog of narcissism away
out to sea --
you come into view
on the horizon of my best dreams,
answered prayers.

Two legs, two arms
ten fingers, ten toes --
you came into the world
with all that is required.
A pretty face
good health
quick wit
sharp mind.

I have loved you well.
Loved you long and strong
to let you go
to places
I can only imagine.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Working In Love

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 28, 2011
Genesis 41:37-57, 42:1-6

We made fun of her. We were teenagers and it was our job to make fun of anybody over age thirty. She was short, fat and had a name that rhymed with “turtle.” Her name was Pirtle so we called her Pirtle Turtle. We were the youth group at my church in Jackson, Tennessee. Mrs. Pirtle devoted herself to providing clean and Christian programming for the teenagers…skating nights, bowling competitions, pizza parties, talent shows, Bible quizzes, camping trips, hay-rides, ice cream suppers, car washes. Mrs. Pirtle had five children of her own and she wanted them to feel connected to the life of the church so she made things happen. No matter how awful we were she grinned in a good natured way and kept on doing what she loved to do—making a place for the young people in the church. We rarely admitted how much we needed her but she must have picked up some kind of personal reward through osmosis or something because she hung in there and kept her spirits up.

When I turned twenty-one I dropped out of college for no good reason and got a job at Rockwell Power Tools. I worked on the assembly line. Little grenade looking contraptions came by me on the conveyor belt and my job was to affix five wires into a cylinder on each grenade that came by. These grenade things came by quickly! And I could only get about two out of five before they moved on down the line. God help the person who actually purchased any of the power tools that passed by me during the time I worked there. I couldn’t keep up.

Hundreds of assembly-line workers sat on stools in a dimly lit warehouse. We had to focus on the conveyor belt in front of us constantly. A whistle blew at 2 hour intervals so we could have a bathroom and smoke break. All of us took lunch break, thirty minutes, at the same time. Any phone calls that needed to be made were made during the lunch break. The sameness coupled with my extreme frustration over not keeping up was deadening for me.

Mrs. Pirtle worked at Rockwell Tools. She worked there for 38 years, sitting on a stool and grabbing up assembly line pieces, contributing her part to the Rockwell products. I watched her while I was there. Mrs. Pirtle was the same person at work as she was at church. At work Mrs. Pirtle was faithful, productive and cheerful, full of life-giving joy. She came alive in that warehouse the same way she came alive in the church basement while MC’ing the annual teenage talent show.

She sat on a stool at Rockwell for 38 years. And she worked in love at the church. You could see the love in her face and hear it in her laughter. Mrs. Pirtle is one of those people I think of when I look through my memories for those who have been called to work for good in the world. She knew what her purpose was.

Pharaoh was pleased with his servant, Joseph, and referred to him as “the one in whom is the Spirit of God.” Pharaoh described Joseph as discerning and wise. So Joseph was given authority over all of Egypt. He received Pharaoh’s signet ring, garments of fine linen, a gold chain, a royal chariot and the daughter of a priest for his wife.

Joseph’s career blossomed. Suddenly he was the man he had dreamed of becoming, the one with work to do that came with respect, responsibility and power. He had dreamed dreams, endured hardships, remembered his strengths and gifts and was ready to be impressive as soon as he came up out of the dungeon. He had a strategy for feeding the nation. And his strategy was a success.

Between the day that Joseph first told his father and brothers about his dreams (You remember? The sheaves of wheat bowing down to him in the field, the sun, moon and eleven stars lining up to bow down to him in the sky…) and the day that the signet ring was placed on his finger there were many opportunities for Joseph to lose hope, to get down and depressed, to give up on himself and his strengths.

But Joseph’s purpose was to work for love of the God who created him, for love of the way God created him. It worked. He won his place in the dream.

Work is part of life. We want to be paid for the work that we do and we want, even more, for our work to be meaningful. Many of us will work for almost nothing so long as the work rewards us with a sense of truly sharing the best of ourselves. We want our work to be appreciated. We want our work to make a difference. It is the prize we keep our eyes on up ahead- sharing ourselves and seeing that the world around us is brighter and better because of the work we have done.

And don’t be thinking you don’t have what it takes to make a big difference in this world. You do. You are a human being created in the image of God and that qualifies you for amazing work.

In the year 1662 an ordinary foot soldier named Nicholas Herman noticed a dry and leafless tree in the middle of winter and he focused on it. He realized that spring would come and change that tree altogether. This ordinary man during an ordinary work day had a simple reflection on the cycles of life and that moment changed a foot soldier into a man of constant prayer.

Nicholas Herman entered the Order of Carmelites in Paris and became known as Brother Lawrence. His letters and conversations have been written and turned into a classic called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Brother Lawrence dedicated himself to living in a constant conversation with God. At any moment in the midst of any work the soul can practice the presence of God. “All that I do,” he wrote, “I do for love of God.” He worked in the kitchen washing dishes and practicing the presence of God. Ordinary work with great purpose. Four hundred years later we are still being inspired by this man’s reflections on his work and his connection to God in the kitchen.

Like the birds that fly over our heads, each one of us has wings to fly in our work, to transcend the ordinary and create extraordinary transformative moments—simply by connecting our work to the power of God’s love within us.

We are the church. As a church we are called and equipped to work together. The purpose of the church is to be a transforming people who work together in the light of God’s grace. Everything else is up to God.

Our work is to engage the lonely in affirming friendships, comfort the broken hearted, heal the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect and respect the children and vulnerable, remember those in prison and spend time with them, treat all people as we would want to be treated ourselves.

Like the birds that fly over our heads we spread our wings and fly when we work in love and for the love of God.

Joseph had two sons: He named the first child Manasseh which means God has made me forget all my hardships. And Joseph named his second child Ephraim which means God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes. Hard times were over for Joseph. His work made him a governor. God in Joseph’s life and work delivered the reward of a successful life in the palace.

Meanwhile back in the land of Canaan, the old man, Jacob, and his sons were getting hungry. The food had run out and they learned that food was available in Egypt. So the old man asked his sons, “Why are you standing around looking at each other?” Step outside the circle of your familiar here and see if there’s a cure somewhere for what’s starving us.

The brothers traveled to Egypt where they found food and they found a chance to be fed and forgiven by the brother they had wronged long ago. The story comes full circle. The story is all about love, God’s love moves with and through this story at all times. The story is all about trusting in God’s steadfast love.

So let me say a little something about the world in which we’re working… We live in a world where people are not motivated by oughts and shoulds. People in this congregation will not be shamed into dedicated service for the church. “If you really loved Jesus (or this church) you would volunteer to teach in Sunday school every week.” This doesn’t work. And that kind of emotional bullying is even less effective outside the church: You ought to be in church or else…People roll their eyes. Twenty percent of our neighbors, family and friends are quite comfortable today living without any kind of faith community or commitment to any particular religious belief. Compare that with around three percent in the 1950’s. This is the world we work in today.

Rather than tell our neighbors, family and friends what they ought or should be doing, it is more helpful to ask questions.

Peter Drucker, famed teacher of management and consultant to many of America’s corporations, has made a career out of asking two simple questions: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” For the work of the church these questions can be re-worded “What purpose are you serving?” and “How’s your purpose going?”

Anthony Robbins now serves a huge congregation in Seattle, a growing church--vibrant and effective in its outreach. But he tells about a time, twenty years ago, when his ministry seemed lifeless, his work meaningless. He says, “I had no notion what was going on. I felt hollowed out from the inside. Life had lost its pleasure. I went home from church after preaching one Sunday, lay down on the bed, unsure whether I would or could ever get up again. In time I did get up and went on about my work but savoring none of it. In time I came to know this experience as depression.”

He goes on to say- “It was not like having a sinus infection where the problem is clear and easily treated. The experience of depression required learning and change before I could get close to a solution. I learned that medication helped and I learned that other steps were required in order to find my purpose in life. I had to do some rethinking about ministry and the ways I worked. I had to do some rethinking about church and what its purpose is in the world.

I had to change my ideas about what work belonged to me, what work belonged to others and what work belonged to God. I had to learn how to trust and rely on God. I had to learn not only to preach grace but to experience grace myself. I had to learn to live less attached to outcomes and more open to letting God be God in the world, in the church and in me.”

Robbins says: “So far this has been the challenge of my life. Living with the questions, the learning and the changes have made my work what it is now, an ongoing conversation with God.”

Asking questions, learning, changing, growing. These are the things that life is made of. What is the purpose of this church? And what can you learn by asking that question?

Mrs. Pirtle devoted herself to providing clean and Christian programming for the teenagers…skating nights, bowling competitions, pizza parties, talent shows, Bible quizzes, camping trips, hay-rides, ice cream suppers, car washes. She worked at Rockwell and at the church. She worked in love, in an ongoing conversation that kept her connected and motivated, unattached to the outcome.

Brother Lawrence washed the dishes, dried them and put them away as he talked with God. It all began with a leafless winter tree and realizing that tree would be covered with green leaves when spring arrived. Life belongs to God, life of the trees, life of the birds, life of our families, neighbors and friends. The life of our church belongs to God.

Joseph, drawn up from the dungeon, found a place to work. Joseph and God fed an entire nation. The steadfast love of God provided for Joseph a place to work where he could reconnect with his brothers, feed them, forgive them and restore them to a life where the entire family could live together and work in love.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gifted for Service

Genesis 41:1-36
Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 21, 2011

Lisa Anderson is a chaplain at St Jude. She’s been there for fifteen years. Families come from all over the world to get treatment for their children here in Memphis. Lisa tells about a Japanese couple who brought their baby to St Jude with hope and fear in their hearts. The baby had a rare and awful blood disease. Each day Lisa went by ICU and stood by the baby to pray. She spoke to the parents. They nodded and bowed. They were so broken hearted; it was difficult to look at the pain on their faces. Lisa couldn’t talk with them because she can’t speak Japanese. They couldn’t speak English. Somehow the translator and Lisa could never make it to the ICU at the same time.

One afternoon Lisa was at the dentist having her teeth cleaned when she got a call from the nurses in ICU. The baby was making her transition from this life to the next and the parents were asking for Lisa. “Are you sure this is what they’re asking for?” Lisa wondered how it could be that the parents, who she had never been able to talk with, were asking for her. She went to the bedside and the translator explained that they wanted their baby blessed for the journey. Lisa led them in a ritual, a blessing, and the parents were grateful. The parents who could not speak English understood that Lisa who could not speak Japanese was a connection to the divine, a connection to a love and hope that transcends all languages.

As people of faith we are gifted for service and our gifts are needed by so many people. There’s a famine going on in our world when it comes to our hunger for hope and human connection to the divine.

As people of faith we are richly blessed with gifts and not a day goes by in our ordinary lives that we aren’t called upon to share in hope filled ways. In fact it is our gifts that keep us faithful and grateful. When we begin to lose hope and the lights fade for us we find that reaching out to share and help another person is the most direct way to return to the light of hope. It is through sharing our spiritual gifts and strengths that we rise up out of our own pain and darkness – finding meaning and purpose as we move from morning to night.

Joseph had been in the dungeon for two years. He was there on a false charge. Potiphar’s wife, as you remember, came on to Joseph (who was apparently very handsome) and when he turned her down she cried out accusing Joseph of something he did not do. So Joseph’s master took him and threw him in prison.

And we are told that God was with Joseph. God showed Joseph steadfast love and gave him favor in the eyes of the chief jailer. I just want to point out that scripture says God was with Joseph in the dungeon. So when we talk as if God is with us when we get a good parking place, when we land the job we wanted, when we win the lottery…It is not only when the sky is rosy that we find God within us and beside us. God is the main character in our life’s story no matter where our life takes us.

So after two years in prison, Joseph, the one who had been rejected by his brothers and sold into slavery, earned for himself the respect and admiration of other prisoners as well as the chief jailer. Joseph did not hide his gifts. It is remarkable to think about it. He could have been lost in anger, bitter, reclusive, and depressed—and which one of us would blame him? But Joseph recognized himself as a person created and gifted by God. His gifts were intended to be used for service – whether he was wearing a coat of many colors in his father’s house, on a throne in the palace or down in the dungeon. And it was down in the dungeon where Joseph used his God-given gifts to interpret the dreams of the baker and cupbearer. And that is what ultimately set him free.

Because Joseph shared his gift as an interpreter of dreams, the cupbearer was pulled up into the light and later, when an interpreter of dreams was needed for pharaoh, the cupbearer remembered his days in the dungeon and that set Joseph free. Good stewardship of the gifts he had been given made the difference for Joseph.

The writers of the New Testament remind us over and over again that our gifts come from God and are intended for service. The purpose of our gifts is to increase the hope of the world. In Matthew and Luke we’re asked: If you know how to give good gifts to your children, can you imagine how God in heaven knows how to give good gifts to us? In Corinthians we’re told that although there is a wide variety of gifts given to believers-- all gifts come from One God. James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God above.

Our Old Testament friend, Joseph, wasn’t gifted so he could sit on a throne in the palace and feel special, powerful. He was gifted to make a difference in the world around him. So he came up out of the dungeon, into the light, interpreted pharaoh’s dream and –as a result-- all of Egypt and the surrounding regions were fed—grain was set aside during the seven years of plenty so that grain was available to eat in plenty during the seven years of famine.

As I talk about gifts I recognize that we live in a time and a culture where we have been trained to think about ourselves as individuals. If you are like me you are now wondering: What are my gifts? What gifts have I been given? How do my gifts compare to the gifts given to the person next to me? How do my gifts compete? We live in a world that has taught us to think that way.

And I would like for us to consider gifts in a different way. Not the gifts that each one of us has been given but the gifts we have been given together to create a vibrant and hope-filled faith community. I would like to gently lead us away from our individualized packaging and into the family-sized packaging. This congregation has been gifted by way of the individuals that make the congregational body--and those gifts are provided for service, to draw people out of the dungeon and into the light.

I am an infrequent visitor, a guest here, and I can easily point out several gifts this community has been given. Your warm welcome and hospitality are genuine. You are faithful. I have seen you act with absolute generosity, giving more than I would have thought you had to share. You embrace difference in a world that focuses on homogenizing everything. You don’t insist on an agenda of growth as if getting bigger is the only goal that matters for a congregation. You have integrity and a good sense of humor. You have compassion.

You have hope that sustains you and spills out into the community. You have rituals that keep you focused on your good intentions, rituals that remind you of the Source, the God who gave you your good gifts.

Gifts, like love, do not run out but I think they can dry up and blow away if they are not watered by the gentle and steady rains of faith and hope.

Elif Shafak, a Turkish novelist, recently provided a TED Talk titled “The Politics of Fiction.” She says that our social problems too often come from the circles that surround us and keep us comfortable. We choose to be inside circles of people and places that mirror the way we look, think, act and vote.

Shafak says, “If we have no connection whatsoever with the world beyond the one we take for granted then we run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink. Our hearts might dwindle and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons.”

(That’s Technology, Entertainment and Design Talks. You can find these excellent addresses at Ideas worth spreading.)

Joseph, so wonderfully gifted for excellent service that his brothers hated him and sold him along with his gifts, was taken as a slave into Egypt. A strange land. A strange story. A trip he made by force and not by choice. He landed in prison. And he was called out of prison to live in the palace. None of it really by choice except that Joseph did choose to stay alive, alert, aware of opportunities to share the gifts he came with.

This church has a long, strange story that rides up and down like a roller coaster ride. It might be nice to have the sanctuary full of people. It might be nice to have offering plates filled with big checks every week. It might be nice to have a televised worship service that wows the world. Some congregations enjoy that kind of gift package.

The package of gifts this congregation has been given is no less stellar and no less valuable. You have chosen to step outside the circle and trust God to provide the meaningful ways to share. Just like Lisa, the chaplain at St Jude, you may be in ministry with people whose language you cannot speak but the divine connection is obvious and understood by all.

Rick Bragg wrote an article, “What Stands in a Storm,” for the August edition of Southern Living Magazine. Everything was vulnerable in Alabama and Mississippi on April 27 of this year when a tornado a mile wide ripped through those states. Rick Bragg lives on a lovely street in Glendale Gardens, Alabama. That day the winds ripped and roared. 2 by 4’s flew through the air like toothpicks. Trees splintered. Shingles flew from the houses like pieces of paper. Sirens screamed. Mothers held on to their babies in closets and bathtubs.

Outside, minutes after the winds died down, people gathered in the street. Tammy Elebash stood in the street with a phone to her ear. “Yes I see the Pitts, the Petrivics. Yes, Mrs. Brannon is fine. She’s on my arm right here.” Inez and John were together holding on to each other while Inez clutched their wedding album, the only thing they had grabbed before taking shelter in their tub.

They stood together in the street. Neighbors. Shocked. Bewildered.

Then one by one they began to notice the change. The once verdant place was laid open, stripped, flattened. They could see things they hadn’t been able to see before like a water tower that used to be invisible behind the curtains of green. It was like the storm had picked these people up and set them down some place ugly, broken and twisted.

They stood together in the street. Neighbors. Shocked. Bewildered. They moved closer together. How awful it would have been to have landed in this ugly, broken and twisted place—alone.

How awful for Joseph had he landed in Egypt, a strange land, alone and without benefit of his faith, without the good gifts God gave to him and the capacity to share them.

How awful for that Japanese couple at St Jude, standing helplessly by the crib had they not felt the connection of hope they found in Lisa?

How awful it would have been to be there alone.

When we think back over the tough times in our own lives it is most often the case that we made it through the struggle, moved from the dungeon into the light of another day, because somebody was there and their gifts connected us to a hope that transcends all things on earth.

It isn’t the gifts so much as it is our faith in the giver of good gifts that sets us free to be generous, compassionate, willing to reach out and grow in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. We are gifted for service.

May we celebrate those gifts in our worship together. And may we find this body of faith affirmed to go out from this place and time together to spread hope in the streets of Memphis, to spread a spirit of compassion in this neighborhood, and to connect with the gifts of all God’s people wherever we meet them.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Preserving Life

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
August 14, 2011
Genesis 45:1-28

We all come from a place where there are no enemies. We come into this world without defense and without any awareness that we might require defenses. Just look at a newborn baby. Bend over the crib in the early morning light when a baby is first waking up. The expression is beatific. You will see that babies expect the world around them to be full of wonder, glorious, kind and safe.

And then we experience family life. We get our assigned role: the hero, the mascot, the scapegoat, the trouble maker, the pet…And we fall into our script. We learn our lines. And we sharpen our skills for survival against all manner of attacks and enemies.

In his study, “The Life of Birds,” David Attenborough tells about the tragic dodo bird. A turkey-sized flightless pigeon, the dodo lived on the tropical island of Mauritius. A fruit eater it had little reason to fly. With no natural predators the dodo didn’t even know how to move quickly. So it was easy prey for humans when they came to Mauritius Island. The sailor, Volguard Iverson, shipwrecked on the island in 1662, gave the last eye witness account of the dodo. “Instead of wings,” he wrote, “these large creatures have small flaps…” And those flaps proved useless for getting away from the men who hunted them into extinction.

We think of a dodo as a stupid creature. In reality it was a creature that had no enemies, no reason to fear. So it had no reason to fly. Most birds have developed wings and they fly—not just for the pleasure of feeling the wind beneath their wings- but as a way to survive. A way to preserve life.

Human creatures learn to walk and then we learn to run. We learn to ball up our fists, pick up weapons and defend ourselves from enemies. And most of us learn these survival skills inside our own homes. In our relationships with our family.

We all have families. None of us came into the world absent contact with another human being and all the relationships involved there. Even if the connection is a deep disconnection there is a family connection of some size and significance for all of us. Somebody picked us up and put food in our mouth. And a family—for evil or for good-- came into being.

Tavis Smiley, host of NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show, tells a story about his family. When Tavis was in the seventh grade he and his sister, Phyllis, were accused of doing something at church that they did not do. Their parents were leaders in the church: his mother was a missionary and their father was a trustee and on the board of deacons.

They had attended an afternoon service at church and some disruptive behavior took place during the program. Somehow the finger of blame got pointed at Tavis and his sister as the ringleaders—even though they were innocent. In a later church meeting the minister of the church stood in front of the entire congregation and accused Phyllis and Tavis of being the culprits. He scolded them publicly.

The brother and sister knew they were in deep trouble. They tried to convince their parents that they were not responsible for the disturbance at church. But their parents had been embarrassed and would not listen to their children. They took the minister’s word over the word of their children.

Their father was absolutely enraged. It was clear when they got home and behind closed doors that a beating was on the way. It didn’t happen immediately. The father had to go to work and he didn’t return home until 3 in the morning.

That’s when he came into the bedroom, turned on the light, got Tavis out of bed and gave him the worst beating Tavis ever had. The father beat his son with an extension cord. He beat Tavis and then he went to Phyllis room, dragged her out of bed and beat her. The father beat his children so badly that the children’s’ flesh was ripped and torn. They were in so much pain that they could not lie down. Their bleeding wounds stuck to the sheets. The next morning they could not take a bath for the open wounds that stung so badly.

Both children dressed and went to school. But they would not put on their gym shorts. They refused to change clothes in the locker room because they were too embarrassed at what the other kids would see on their backs and legs.

So Tavis was sent to the principal’s office. The coach thought Tavis was hiding something. And he was. The principal ordered Tavis to take his clothes off. When the principal and coach saw the condition of Tavis body, they called Phyllis in too. After seeing the cuts and wounds on her body the police and an ambulance were called. Phyllis and Tavis were in the hospital for seven days while their wounds were treated. Then social services took the matter to court and both children were put into foster care, taken to two separate foster homes.

After many months of living in foster care, Tavis went home to live while he finished high school. The relationships were strained and uncomfortable all during high school. Phyllis never returned home; she remained in foster care until she was an adult and on her own.

To this day Tavis Smiley and his sister are healing from that experience. It was painful, an embarrassment. Because the police were involved there was something written in the local newspaper. It was a small town and everyone was talking about the family, even the people at the church. Phyllis and Tavis felt that they had brought deep shame on the family even though they had been innocent of the original disturbance.

The incident affected Tavis and his sister differently. Tavis used the incident to motivate himself. He sought to be empowered so he would never be humiliated in the eyes of the community again. He decided he would not let his scars determine his destiny. Tavis focused on achieving and more achieving.

Phyllis allowed the incident to beat her down. She never recovered emotionally. She has never forgiven their father. She had a number of babies without having a husband to help her. She got hooked on crack. Her life has spun out of control. The scars are still visible on her arms and legs. And the scars are still evident in most of her life choices.

Tavis reports that not a single day goes by that he does not think about the beating and his father’s rage. And not a single day goes by that he does not work to heal from the pain.

The real damage happens when family members are afraid to talk about their pain. The real damage happens when families get stuck. The permanent damage happens when families refuse to admit they have been hurt. Evil takes control when family members deny that they need each other in order to heal. Families need each other in order to preserve life.

Tavis says that his father and mother have asked for forgiveness. The pain has been acknowledged between them. The mother and father have grown from acknowledging their own guilt and shame. Tavis prays for his sister. He says, “No matter how severe the pain in our lives, we must strive to do whatever is necessary to turn our pain into power.”

Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America, Tavis Smiley, Anchor Books, NY, 2002

This is how we preserve life. This is how we preserve our own life and the lives of those around us. We learn to turn our pain into power.

“Don’t be distressed,” Joseph said to his brothers when they came to Egypt for food. “Don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.” Turning pain into power. We can do that by recognizing and depending upon the power of God’s providence.

Just because God brought us into this world doesn’t mean God brought us here to abandon us. Just because God brought us into a family filled with enemies doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a powerful plan for each one of us in our family. Just because we have pain in our family does not mean there will not be power to come from the family pain. Despite the fact that Joseph was sold into slavery, he was not trapped as a victim of his past.

Edwin H. Friedman has written a classic text book on family theory. His book is Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. It’s a book about family systems therapy. Family systems therapy focuses not on the personality of the identified patient and not on one person’s individual conflicts and anxieties but, rather, on the relationships surrounding the identified person.

The family is a unit and can only be reconciled, healed and transformed by seeing it as such. To focus on an individual is to miss the point that we live and behave in relationships. Jacob didn’t have a favorite son without having other sons for comparison. Joseph’s brothers didn’t get jealous without Joseph, his coat and his dreams. And Joseph didn’t end up in Egypt by his own choice.

He may have been a tattle tail and a bragger but how many families do you know who would actually sell their brother into slavery for that? This was a family system that needed a therapist if there ever was one.

With family therapy the therapist doesn’t look to treat the sickest or most conflicted family member but, rather, the family member who has the greatest capacity to bring change to the system. And in Jacob’s house the one most likely to bring change was the one who allowed himself to dream big dreams. God preserved Joseph in an effort to preserve life… life for Joseph, life for the family and life for the entire region.

Family therapy does not intend to calm the family down but treats crisis in the family as an opportunity to bring change to the entire system so everyone in the family has a chance to be reconciled, healed and transformed.

Joseph’s family had to deal with favoritism, jealousy, selling a brother into slavery, lies, cover-ups, guilt and shame.

Then the brothers had to travel to Egypt to secure food for the family. Just as Jacob had long ago sent Joseph into the field to take lunch to his brothers, now Jacob sends those same 10 sons who were in the field to Egypt where they will get food. And they will get that food from Joseph, the family’s change agent. This family, whether they realize it or not, depends on Joseph for nourishment. And Joseph depends on God to bring power from his pain and to preserve life.

We enter the story in pharaoh’s palace where Joseph has been made governor. Since Joseph last saw his brothers he has had to fight against enemies that were life threatening. There have been false accusations and a long imprisonment for something he did not do. Joseph had to fight in order to maintain his strength, his integrity and his wisdom. Joseph, the younger brother who was dismissed by his brothers as nothing more than trouble, has now grown and healed so that he knows himself as a man, a man capable of forgiving his family and preserving life.

Joseph says, “You meant to destroy life but God meant to preserve life.” Joseph’s life was spared from ruin and bitterness. He found a place to know his own power, enough power so he could forgive those who had hurt him, enough power so he could help to feed an entire region. And his brothers had the opportunity to be fed at the hand and by the mercy of the one they had tried to destroy. They were given a chance to be reconciled, healed and transformed.

We must strive to do whatever is necessary to turn our pain into power…in order to preserve life.

God brings us into this world and shares us with a family…mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. We might be the favorite. We might be the scapegoat. We might be the youngest. The oldest. No matter. We always belong to the Family of God.

No matter what our family does or does not do. We belong to God. No matter how deep our wounds. We belong to God. No matter how many enemies we encounter. We belong to God. We belong to God and to a world full of wonder, glorious, kind and safe. We always belong to a Love so strong it can bring good out of anything. This is our family story. This is your story. A story of steadfast and eternal love.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Living the Dream

August 7, 2011
Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
Genesis: 37:1-36

Let’s talk about dreams and dreamers. We all dream. That’s what the experts say. Some dreams stand out in our memory after we wake up. Some dreams get lost in our sleep. I think dreams are important so I try to show them respect by paying attention to them. I regularly saw a Jungian therapist for seven years. He helped me to focus on the significance of dreams. I learned that dreams can be clarifying, healing and motivating. Dreams can help us recognize how valuable our life is. How valuable all life is.

When we think about Joseph, the dreamer and the interpreter of dreams, we see that coat of many colors that his father (Jacob) made for him. Those of us who are my age probably remember the picture on our Sunday school papers when we were children: this good looking boy wrapped in a stunning coat with full, flowing sleeves. Younger people think about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.”

This coat of many colors with its flowing sleeves represented a father’s deep love. Clothing fit for a king. Tragically that same beautiful coat came back to the father covered in blood and surrounded by lies and deceit. The coat came to represent deep hate as well as deep love.

Joseph was a tattle-tail. The older brothers had reason to hate him. He was seventeen and tending sheep in the field with his brothers. He was old enough to know better than to carry a bad report about his brothers’ behavior to the old man. Nobody likes a tattle-tail.

Although Joseph wasn’t making himself popular with his brothers, he did manage to get himself out of the hot field and the sheep tending business. I see Joseph as clever. Cute.This is just my interpretation of the character: I imagine him at home spending the mornings in the kitchen whipping up delightful meals, sashaying around wearing a Liza Minnelli apron. Then I see him spending his afternoons in the courtyard with a design board cleverly wowing his father’s wives with a trendy color scheme for renovations in the new bathroom. I imagine the design star, David Bromstad, dimples and all! Joseph was special and he knew it.

This was the favored son, the dreamer. And although that special coat seemed to anger the eleven older brothers, it was not the coat but the dreaming that made the older brothers want to murder this clever, tattle-tail, big-headed braggart.

He was a dreamer and he dared to dream about his own power, a power that follows Joseph everywhere, a mysterious power that seems to be part of the boy who grows up to be a successful man in pharaoh’s court. Joseph knew his power through dreams. His dreams and his respect for the dreams of others ultimately set him free.

We’ve known dreamers… Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, John Gilmore. Do you know John Gilmore? He teaches anthropology at the University of Memphis. He is a minister at the Open Heart Spiritual Center on Broad. Back in the early 90's, he was the pastor for a conservative CME church in Memphis. John says that church has unfortunately entrenched itself in an anti-LGBT stance over the years.

While living in the parsonage of that church, John had a powerful dream. He dreamed that people were in his house. These people had guns and they were shooting out the windows. They turned to John and said, “Don’t worry! We’ll get rid of those gays!” John screamed at the people in his house to stop shooting. He said, “I stand with those men!” And, as John tells the story, that’s when he realized God was calling him to be part of a vision of an inclusive community where all people can be safe to be who God created them to be. John dreamed of a world where all people can value themselves and know they are valued by their neighbors, co-workers, church members and family.

John had a dream and rather than ignore it, brush it aside as a symptom of last night’s spicy lasagna, John Gilmore got on his knees and asked God for the courage he would need to respond positively to the call that came with his dream.

I remember when John processed with a group of clergy people into First Congregational Church on World AIDS Day in 1994. For many of us it was another nice service. For John it was a symbol of his dream and the courage he had been given. John lost his job as pastor of that CME church and he lost his marriage as a result of the dream. He lost friends too. John would also say that the dream set him free to realize the amazing power of God’s love within him.

You’ve known dreamers, people who imagined a different and better way to do something, people who have become part of a new vision. Maybe you have a dream and with that dream you have the key to open doors for a better life for all of us. We all dream.

Dreaming seems like something we do in our sleep, tucked in between layers of soft sheets and surrounded by the stillness and familiarity of home. But there’s another side to dreaming, the dangerous and risky side. Dreams can set us apart from the crowd and free us to experience the mystery and power of God within us. Dreams can set us apart from the crowd and make us targets of other people’s anger—anger born from fear of realizing their own dreams and power.

Joseph got out of bed and put on his house slippers. He padded down the hallway to the communal bath. He rubbed his eyes and put toothpaste on his brush. Standing by the sink he called out to his brothers, “I had a dream! We were all binding sheaves out in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright while your sheaves bent and bowed down to my sheaf. How about that?”

“That” didn’t please his brothers at all. I can see them standing absolutely still, stunned by Joseph’s wide grin. They didn’t appreciate the dream or the dreamer.

On another day Joseph got out of bed and went to the table. The old man, Jacob, was buttering his toast and the brothers were scooping up spoonfuls of Cheerios. Joseph leaned back in his chair and grinned widely. “I had a dream. I dreamed that the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” Even Jacob had to object. “What kind of dream is this?”

It’s the kind of dream that lands a brother in the bottom of a pit. It’s the kind of dream that gets a brother sold into slavery. It’s the kind of dream that takes a brother away from home and into a strange land. It’s the kind of dream that won’t go away.

It’s the kind of dream that comes with great courage and vision. It’s the kind of dream that calls us by name. It’s the kind of dream that comes with a promise. It’s the kind of dream that shows us what personal power is all about.

It’s the kind of dream that allows us, once and for all, to stop wishing we were somebody else. Respecting our own dreams can set us free us from resentment toward those who seem to be full of great dreams.

It’s the kind of dream that leads us to realize we are, each one of us, the favored child. We all come from God, the creator and giver of great dreams. The God of abundance and life provides dreams for all of us and clothes each one of us in colorful coats that signify the beauty and power of our personal potential.

It’s the kind of dream that takes a boy into Egypt where he became a hero in Pharaoh’s court. It’s the kind of dream that allows an abused boy to become a forgiving man, a brother (faithful and wise) who provides food for those who wanted desperately to kill both the dream and the dreamer.

In an interview about his song, “Imagine,” John Lennon was asked: Isn’t it unrealistic in such a large and complicated world to talk about world peace? Lennon’s response: “It's not a new message: "Give Peace a Chance"—I don’t think that’s unrealistic. Just saying "give it a chance." With "Imagine" we're asking listeners to simply dream of a world without countries, religions or wars."

You may say I’m a dreamer; but I’m not the only one.

What a different story Joseph’s story might have been had his brothers been inspired by their younger brother’s dreams and consequently chosen to attend to their own dreams while out shepherding sheep in the field, perhaps listening to the songs of angels overhead, making art from the clouds that passed by, inspired to write a requiem by the sound of breezes blowing through the reeds.

Instead the older brothers chose to view the world and themselves through an economy of poverty. If one brother was favored with a coat and dreams, then all the other brothers could only feel robbed. They could only see what they did not have, a special coat or dreams. The angry brothers could not imagine any dream that included them. They could not imagine a closet with a special coat for everyone. The older brothers were trapped in their self-imposed jealousy.They saw God's world as limited, as limited in love as they were.

The book of Genesis is filled with good stories. The story of Abraham is a story about God being present in radical trust. Abraham left home and followed God’s call to a destination that was a total mystery. The only thing Abraham knew about the Promised Land was that God promised to be there too. Jacob’s story plants God smack dab in the middle of human conflict and family struggles for an inheritance. Joseph’s story involves God in the mysteries of life, in dreams.

God is in the story. Genesis includes the story of beginnings. The Creator created the world and created us in the image of the Creator. We have the power to co-create with God, to continue to dream new things into being, to repair and reconcile.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced to the world on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a very cold January day. “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream today.”

That particular dreamer was assassinated right here in Memphis and the dream lives on in our city and in our hearts—creating space and inspiration for our own dreams.

Dreaming is dangerous. Sharing the dream can be downright lethal. Why would we want to do it? Because to dream is to bring about the Kingdom of God on this earth.

This is my dream, that all will be well. I dream of the day when all people will feel safe to share their dreams and know that their dreams are valued. God is calling us to be part of a vision for an inclusive community where all people are free to value themselves and know they are valued by their neighbors, co-workers, church members and family.

I invite you to awaken the dream within you. Feel the courage that comes with valuing your dreams and wearing the colorful coat that identifies you as a favored member of God’s family.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

First Baptist Church in Memphis

I read a story in the newspaper about a special guest coming to First Baptist Church last Sunday morning. Bert Montgomery, a Baptist minister in Starkville, Mississippi,and a university professor,would be selling copies of his book, preaching in worship and performing a one-man show on Sunday evening. I was curious. I calculated if he teaches in a state school he has to have legitimate academic credentials. Added to my calculation, about the probable value of this event, was my previous experience with First Baptist Church. I heard Kate Campbell sing there one Saturday night a few years ago. I know a few members of the congregation and I like them. None of them have pounded me on the back and tried to drag me to my knees, demanding that I give my life to Jesus Christ. So I put on some nice clothes and went to a Baptist church on Sunday morning.

A banner hung over the door: "A Different Way To Be Baptist." I went through the door and was immediately greeted warmly by a woman who saw to it that I found the sanctuary and a seat. I sat where I have always sat in traditional sanctuaries, on the third pew back from the front and on the aisle. The stained glass windows poured a hopeful glow into the room and softened everything, even my anxiety about feeling so vulnerable. I settled in and enjoyed a familiar sense of belonging.

When the organ began to play my eyes filled with tears. That was the first of several "wet" moments for me during the hour of worship. The first hymn was "Rescue the Perishing" and the words were not updated for political correctness. I could lustily sing along without looking at the hymnbook. The lyrics were set deeply in my memory from childhood. I could feel my mother standing beside me. I could hear her harmony with every verse and I was back in the Church of the Nazarene where I was raised. The music leader looked genuinely happy to be singing and to be leading us and the choir in song. The guest preacher was jovial and his message was clear: "Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do but we do not walk alone."

I was struck by the emphasis on Jesus. Since 1994, I have been part of a church where Jesus is important and social justice is even more important. I have focused so much on matters of social justice that I often forget about the possibility of trusting in the presence and power of Jesus. In the pew at First Baptist Church, with nice maroon carpet under my feet, I liked feeling sheltered and befriended rather than drafted into front-line service. I put cash in the plate when it passed by. And my offering came from a place of genuine desire to support what was happening around me. Everything felt familiar.

The call to commitment felt too familiar and I avoided eye contact with the minister while he stood and invited us to make a decision for Christ. That seemed too old-fashioned, even tacky. That kind of thing was done back when women with blue hair wore little foxes that chased each other around their necks. Altar calls were given when men wore thin ties and big hats. I had far too many wild and ecstatic altar call experiences as a child to feel safe around them now. People whooped, shouted, ran the aisles while waving handkerchiefs and sometimes removing their entire shirts. (Men only, of course.) There were Sunday services when only a few of us remained seated in the pew, watching as the entire congregation whipped up a frenzy-- running around and around the sanctuary. No one at the Baptist Church ripped off their shirts or took off running. I started breathing again when the organ introduced the final hymn.

First Baptist Church is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, more theologically progressive than the Southern Baptists and not as socially liberal as the American Baptists or the Alliance of Baptists. Like all Christian denominations, the Baptists have various brands.

I enjoyed my worship experience at First Baptist Church. Although I will most likely not start calling myself a Baptist, I do not mind confessing that it was spiritually rewarding to be with them. It felt like the old days in a new and good way. I truly met Jesus there and gave honor to his life and love.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

United Church of Christ 's 28th General Synod: Tampa, Florida

From the UCC Web-Site (
Honored Laywomen’s Luncheon Extols the Power of Story
Written by Micki Carter
July 3, 2011

The power of story took center stage Sunday afternoon as 56 laywomen from across the United Church of Christ were honored at a luncheon at General Synod 28.
The honorees were introduced in groups that followed dramatic readings by Debbie Hoogesteger and Rachel Chapman who represented the “foremothers in the faith, those whose names stir up images of strength and story: Rebekah, Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary, Rachel, Deborah, Judith, Priscilla and Miriam.”

But the story that most of the attendees will remember is the one told, in Arkansas twang, by Elaine Blanchard who reset the familiar story of The Woman at the Well in a West Memphis bar. The story was told from the point-of-view of the woman’s mother. The teller told about her daughter, Diana, and an amazing encounter with Jesus on a bar stool while drinking a beer.

“Jesus and the disciples were on their way from Little Rock to Nashville,” Blanchard began. “That old van of theirs broke down. It was a donation, you know. The disciples went to look for an honest and affordable mechanic. Good luck with that! They left Jesus behind to rest.”

“There was an old ramshackle bar, called The Well, beside the road and Jesus had just taken a seat at the bar when my daughter, Diana, came through the door. I’d like to tell you she was there to deliver the mail. I’d like to say she was applying for a job. But the truth of the matter is- she was there for a little hair of the dog.”

The story continued with an engaging, deeply touching and often hilarious discussion about living water. Then Blanchard said, “The disciples came back looking all sideways at my daughter, their mouths twisted up with judgments. The very idea that Jesus would be sitting there drinking a beer with a West Memphis woman! But Diana didn’t give them any time or attention. She took off, on her way to Family Dollar, telling her co-workers there that she had just met a man who claimed to be Jesus. And she was pretty sure he was telling the truth!”

“Now people from all over this region come to hear the story of how Jesus and my daughter met at The Well and had a beer together. Funny how one conversation, one afternoon and one man could change this whole town…”

Loey Powell, who followed Blanchard to the podium, said, “Never before in the history of General Synod luncheons have I ever seen the convention center staff stop and listen to a speaker. Now that’s the power of story.” Powell is executive for administration and women’s justice, Justice and Witness Ministries.