Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making Room For Love

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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Rocking Chair Marathon

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Marriage Equality


November 26, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Not Far

Buntyn Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2015
Psalm 146
Mark 12:28-34 

One day this week I had a plan. I had a deadline looming and a plan for getting my work done on time. It was raining. I took something up to the attic, just putting something away, and I heard a drip, drip, drip. I tried, for a split second, not to hear it. But it was real. I came downstairs and found the number to call our roofers. They came over and went up in the attic. They looked around and we put a container under the drip. They said they would come back when the rain stopped.
Time was ticking away when I got a call from my credit card company. They wanted to know if I was in Oregon and had I just charged $1334.00 at a place called Must Be. Anxiety was flowering full-bloom within me as I cut my credit card into pieces and dropped it in the trash. What else could go wrong?!
That's when I noticed that none of my texts that I had sent out were sent. Upon further investigation, I learned that my cell phone was no longer able to send or receive texts. I took it to the A T & T store where I sat at a table with a nice young woman who was not able to do a thing about my phone not texting. She gave me a number to call for A T & T Technical support. I called the number and talked with a nice young man for a little over an hour. He was kind but not able to help me. By that time it was evening and I had not accomplished anything on my work list. But I had grown a great garden of anxiety. The sky seemed to be falling on my life!
Not for one minute do I think that this series of events is exclusively my own. Not for one minute do I think that this series of events tops your most distressing day this past week. What I do think is this: We all know how easily we are disturbed, how quickly we can lose sight of our priorities. If a day starts going smoothly and in order, it sometimes feels like forty roaring thieves come charging in to steal my peace, to rob me of any connection with God and my awareness of the goodness of life itself.
Praising God gets left in the dust behind our well-rehearsed worries. We know how to worry and complain. Praising, trusting and loving God…Is that even something we need to do? We know how to value and trust the things of this world. But have we even put praising God on our to-do list?
I think it is something important for us to do. According to the Psalmist, we are to praise God as long as we live; we are to sing songs of praise our whole life long.
As a child, I thought that being Christian was defined by going to church on Sunday. What we did or what we left undone on the other days of the week were insignificant in terms of being identified as Christian. It was all decided on that one day of the week when we got together with other Christians, prayed, sang songs, and listened to a sermon. That was it. We were in the club. As an adult I have grown to the place where I see that being Christian is an everyday practice or it is not much at all. I live and breathe Monday through Saturday, same as I do on Sunday. And I need to feel a real connection to something greater than myself all week long. I need to know that there is something more important than the roof over my head, the credit card in my purse and the cell phone in my hand. I need to know how to trust that "something more" and I need to learn how to love that "something more" …more than I love anything else in my life.
How do we learn how to love God more than anything else? It’s a challenge. We don’t call God on the phone, meet God for dinner downtown and then take in a movie with God, holding hands in the darkness and anticipating intense intimacy later. No. We don’t interact with God in any way that resembles the ways we interact with our earthly beloveds. Not really. Because God is something more.
God keeps faith in us. God executes justice for the oppressed, provides food for the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow. God is love and justice rolled into one. God is more than anything we could ever be. God is more than anything else we can know in this life. And that’s what makes it so challenging for us to praise and love God all day long. God is beyond our comprehension and easily set aside while we focus on that annoying driver ahead of us who is slowing us down and keeping us from meeting our pals for a drink after work. We tend to focus on anything and everything but God.
Helen Keller was both blind and deaf. She said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” A blind woman was able to see what is really beautiful in this world, what is truly worthy of our praise.
A few years ago I was talking with the warden out at our county jail. We were reflecting on the problems of the world and the troubles related to mass incarceration. Warden Coleman said, “I think we have raised up a generation and taught them that what really matters in life are things. If you have enough things, you are a success in life and it doesn’t matter how you get your things. Just having them means you are a success.”
It’s too easy for us to worship our possessions, our conveniences, our security systems, investments and our privileges. We put our trust in them. We are blinded by the temporary razzle-dazzle and unable to stay connected to what is eternal.
The chief priests, scribes and elders questioned the authority that Jesus claimed. They were asking him questions, hoping to trick him into exposing himself as a fraud. And then one man, a scribe, steps closer to Jesus, obviously impressed by the responses that Jesus was giving to his antagonists. He asks, “What is the most important commandment?” The scribe isn’t interested in arguing. He sees that Jesus values something basic and is making connections that could unite all human beings. Jesus confesses the oneness of God. There is one God and we are called upon to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
And what comes next? What would the second most important commandment be? To love our neighbor as ourselves.
The scribe received these responses from Jesus and he was impressed, touched deeply. And so are we today. Like the scribe, we recognize how improved our daily lives would be if we made loving and praising God our top priority and if that was followed by loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, our car, our privacy fence and our insurance policies. What if our to-do list had only one item on it, LOVE, every day of the week?
Life would be different, of course. I urge you now NOT to feel guilty if love has not been on the top of your list lately. I beg you not to feel badly toward yourself, to blame yourself if you have been concentrating on everything else other than love. Guilt and self-blame will only widen the gap between you and the eternal love that God is faithfully extending to you.
The scribe was impressed by Jesus and his answers, his presence, his power, his love. That love reached the scribe and opened his heart, his soul, mind and strength. The scribe became a man who could make love a priority every day of the week—not because the scribe was so smart or special. But because he spent time with the love that is eternal.  “You are not far from the Kingdom,” Jesus said to him. And the scribe was moved; he became something more.
It is the love of God that has the power to change us, to teach us to praise and worship that which really matters in life. It is the love of God that gives us eyes to see what is truly beautiful in this world. It is the love of God that can unite us as one human family and set us free to praise what is good and eternal in one hopeful voice together. We are not far from the Kingdom of God any time we choose to put love on the top of our priority list.








Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Observing Sabbath

October 6, 2015
St Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls
Memphis, TN 

I have been invited here today to tell you about my recent decision to observe a weekly Sabbath Day. For the last eight weeks, I have set aside Wednesday as a day to be with God. It is a day for me to pray, and listen for God’s responses, to be outside in the woods or down by the Mississippi River, where nature can embrace me and reassure me that I am part of something big and beautiful.
I do not make calls or text on my Sabbath Day. I do not read emails or get involved in any way with the internet. I write in my journal, and visit people: friends and family. I play with my dog and cat. I lie on the couch and listen to music. I rest. I rest because I am free to do so. I am not a slave forced to work beyond my human capacity. It is not God’s desire that I be available to try and meet the needs of others 24-7. I am free and liberated to enjoy my life.
In the book of Genesis, the second chapter, we read: “God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it …”
Then in the book of Exodus, we read God’s commandments. “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath Day to the Lord, your God…”
When I was a child growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, Sunday was different, a day set apart from other days. Businesses were closed. If your car ran out of gas on Sunday, it would be the next day before you could fill the tank, unless you had an extra can of gas in your garage. Gas station owners were not working. They were home with their families.
We did our shopping on Saturday. The grocery stories and department stores were closed on Sunday. There was no internet then, and there was no such thing as a computer with ads and invitations to spend money online. Only a few families had televisions and those who had televisions did not watch them on Sunday because there was very little programming on Sunday.
We went to church on Sunday morning and on Sunday evening. Sunday was set apart, a different sort of day.
Even though Sunday, back then, was different than the other days of the week, our Sunday tradition was not necessarily a genuine Sabbath observance. To observe the Sabbath Day is to rest in our relationship with God and to intentionally let God do any work that needs to be done.  Our Orthodox friends know so much more about this practice than I do. Observing a Sabbath Day, for me, is a way to express my trust in God. To really stop working, doing, being constantly available and buzzing about for an entire day is to exercise my faith in God. It is as if I am saying, “I am going to rest now, trusting that God is in control of my day, my life, this world and all creation.”
I am sixty-three years old now and I have lived many years without seriously considering observing a weekly Sabbath Day. I am a person of faith. My relationship with God is important to me. I spend time each morning in scripture reading and prayer. But it is new for me to choose to observe a Sabbath Day.
This new practice began because I was sick this past spring. I had severe fatigue and headaches that were a big problem for me. My doctor ran lots of tests and nothing could be found to diagnose and treat what was causing me to feel so badly. So I made some changes in my life and one of those changes has been to observe a Sabbath Day. I am better. I believe I needed a weekly day to live in faith that God could do whatever needs to be done while I rest. The practice of Sabbath observance has been good for my body, my mind and my soul. I feel restored and renewed.
This is what I have learned: Observing Sabbath is not for God; it is something that benefits me. I get to know God better by giving a day to God. Knowing God better has opened my eyes to see and helped my ears to hear that I am loved. I am free to believe that God wants only the best for me. It is not God’s desire that I work, work, work, work. It’s not necessary for any of us to remain on duty and working every day of the week.
Being busy all the time has kept me from seeing the natural beauty of the world around me. Being always available to the phone and computer has prevented me from recognizing how much I love my friends, family and pets. It is so pleasant to turn off the technology and to sit on the couch and read a good book just for the pleasure of reading and imagining. To observe the Sabbath Day is to allow ourselves one of God’s best gifts, a chance to enjoy being alive and being loved.
It’s not easy to set a day apart. It takes planning. I have to tell my friends and family that I will not be available on Wednesday. (I observe my Sabbath Day on Wednesday because I so often work on Sundays, preaching and teaching.)  I have to think ahead and take care of matters before Wednesday gets here. It is a new habit for me and I am learning how to make it fit into my life.
I have learned that I am hungry for silence and solitude. The more I get to be alone with God, the more I want to be alone with God.
By observing a Sabbath Day, I have exposed myself to the possibility of change. I can change myself, let go of anything false, any mask I have felt I needed to wear in order to meet the world’s approval. God is the one who created me, so I am just fine in God’s eye. It is refreshing to spend time with the One who gave this life to me as a gift to enjoy. I don’t have to defend myself or compare myself to others.
By putting my friendship with God first as a focus for one day a week, I have become happier and more hopeful. I am less worried, not so anxious. I am physically stronger. My soul is restored by being with God. It costs me nothing. It is free because I am free.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Getting in Line

First Presbyterian Church Memphis, TN

September 20, 2015

Psalm 1

Mark 9:30-37 

We’ve had long periods without much rain this summer and fall. So I’ve had to water a group of hostas in my front yard to keep them alive. I carry the watering jug from the back yard every other day or so and I give huge gulps of water to the green leafy plants. The plants appreciate my concern and my efforts, I am certain. But a colony of ants lives under the rocks and among the roots of one of those hostas. When I water the plant, the ants come scurrying up out of the ground by the thousands, maybe even by the millions, carrying ant eggs as fast as they can go—running for dry ground. I used to expect those ants to move, find a new place to set up their colony, to hatch their eggs. But they seem intent on staying right where they are. I water. They scurry. Happens over and over again.

I wonder who those ants think I am and what reason they imagine for this random flooding that happens to their home and family. I wonder if they go to church on Sunday morning and talk about whose sin is causing the colony to suffer so.

We are not so different than the ants. There is so much we do not know and cannot understand. One way to improve our lot in life is to acknowledge our limitations, just admit what we do not know. I like to think that I am different than the ants in that surely- by now- I would have tried something new.  If the floods kept coming, surely I would find a new place to live, a new place to be me. I like to think that. But I am deeply imbedded in this world and its ways. We get stuck in our patterns, our biases and our perception of reality.

The first Psalm, this Psalm we have heard this morning, is an introduction to all one hundred and fifty Psalms. Those who do not follow the advice of the wicked nor take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers will be like trees planted by the water. Their leaves will not dry up or wither. They will be fruitful. And, in all that they do, they will prosper.

We are tempted to find comfort in the simplicity of this Psalm. Those who do right will be rewarded. Those people who do wrong will be blown way, washed away, like chaff. Yet, you and I know faithful people, people who have lived exemplary lives, kept the faith, and yet are not prospering in the ways that we imagine prosperity. Just by reading the book of Job we can dislodge the notion that being a good friend to God will serve as protection from illness, grief and pain.

How do we get it right? Living faithfully and trying to understand what God wants and needs from us is so complicated. I can see why so many people give up. If we dare to ask questions, the answers are not always clear or simple.

I was recently with a young woman, Andrea, who was doing her best to figure out what it means to be faithful, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. She was going through some tough times; finances were the focus of her struggle. The ends were not meeting; her income didn’t stretch all the way through a long month of days and basic needs.

Andrea attends a church regularly and she listens to preachers on the radio. She was raised in a conservative and evangelistic congregation. She was raised to trust preachers, to believe that they are set apart by being specially anointed. Andrea was raised to believe and respect the words that come from the preacher’s mouth. The radio preacher was fired up, passionate about prosperity and how Jesus intends to give back more than what we, as disciples, can give to him. “Give!” the voice on the radio insisted. “Give everything you’ve got to this radio ministry. Give to help spread the Word of God on this program! And be amazed by what God returns to you!”

Andrea wrote a check to that minister and his radio program. She gave her rent money for the month and she waited for God’s return. She was evicted, lost her apartment. And she now lives with her parents, sleeps on their couch in the den. And she is nervous about asking questions like, “What does it mean to prosper in the Kingdom of God? What does it get a person to be faithful, trusting and true?”

In Mark’s gospel today we connect with Jesus and his disciples in Galilee. Jesus wants privacy, a chance to be with the disciples in his inner circle for some deep truth, difficult lessons. He tells them that he will be betrayed into human hands, killed, buried and then he will rise from the dead and return to life.

Not one of the disciples asked a question. Not one of them is recorded as saying, “But if you are the Messiah, aren’t you supposed to be a super hero? Didn’t you come to save us, Lord? To set us free from Roman rule and all forms of oppression?” No. They went on with what they were doing: lining up at Starbucks to pay big bucks for a cup of coffee, or whatever it was that the disciples did back then to distract themselves from the rough realities of life around them.

The disciples didn’t ask Jesus about this deep and painful lesson he was teaching them because it did not fit into their cherished narrative. They already knew the story: The Messiah would come and make things better by knocking down the bad guys and eliminating suffering. I imagine they hoped and planned to be on the front lines and on the front pages of the newspapers when the world got turned upside down by Jesus.

We want to believe that life has order and meaning. We want to know how to pass the course. “Uh, professor,” a hand goes up in the middle of the classroom while the professor is standing up front lecturing. “Will that be on the test?” That’s what we want to know. Will it benefit me to learn this lesson? How will I be rewarded? Because if learning this lesson will not move me closer to the front of the line, then I see no point in paying attention.

There’s so much in this world that we do not understand, far too much that doesn’t work out the way we planned or the way we hoped it would. I don’t know what benefit, if any, Andrea received from her generous gift to the radio minister. But I am sure that the radio minister was glad to receive her check, glad for her contribution.

We understand the radio minister. I’ll be honest. It is easier for me to understand the radio minister than it is for me to understand what on earth made Andrea give away her rent money. I know what it is like to work to earn a profit. I even know what it is like to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses in order to increase my profit. For a while I worked as the RN in a weight-loss clinic. I was the designated “medically supervised” part of that clinic and the weight loss diets of our clients. It was my job to run EKG’s, record weekly weights and to counsel clients about their progress. The more of our brand-name products I sold to clients during those counseling sessions, the more profit I made. So I did my best to convince men and women that they would look better, be happier and lose weight faster if they purchased more of our products. Lettuce, spinach and carrots from the grocery produce section just would not work the same way. I went to work to make money and that was how the organization worked.

Maybe you have done things on the job that clearly benefited the bottom line. If so, you can understand the radio minister. We might not want to recognize him when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but we understand him. It’s the way the world operates. To get to the front of the line, we have to sell more, stand out, have our brand recognized around the world and make more profit.

Let’s return to our text in the Gospel of Mark. We follow Jesus and his disciples into Capernaum. Here, Jesus asks a question. ‘What were you arguing about on the way here?” The disciples were reluctant to tell him the answer. They were arguing about who was the greatest among them.

We understand this. Competiveness runs through our veins right beside the red blood cells. We want the best, the newest, the most. We want our children to be at the top of the line in the best schools. We want to think we have earned God’s favor and that we deserve all the conveniences and things we own. In so many ways, you and I are up toward the front of the line—by the world’s standards. We have power to make choices in our life. So many people just wish they had a clean glass of water to drink.

The best we can do is be brave enough to ask questions like: What is it costing this nation to hang on to so much wealth while so much of the world goes without food and clean water? What would Memphis gain if each of the seven thousand churches adopted a person as they were released from the county jail, really supported that person and their family until they got on their feet? What rewards would our city gain if our churches united in a singular, concentrated effort to erase racism and its cancerous toll on human life here? Where would this congregation be in a year if you focused all your prayers, time and talent on increasing the minimum wage to a living wage in Memphis?

We are called upon to sit down and consider what Jesus says to his disciples about the line-up in the Kingdom of God. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What does it mean to be servant of all?

I urge you never to underestimate the value of a good question. Don’t be afraid to ask them. Maybe we could all agree to live with this question in the coming week…What does it mean to be servant of all?

There’s so much mystery to God. God says to the prophet Isaiah, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Jesus knew how challenged his disciples were by the notion of the last being first and the first being last, so he took a small child into his lap as an illustration. A child. Open-minded. Curious. Needy. Creative. Trusting. “Be like this,” Jesus said.

I am thinking about Andrea and that radio minister. It would be so easy for us to scoff at the hypocrisy of that radio minister and to write him off as a fraud. And Andrea. It would be just as easy for us to dismiss her as foolish.

But then I have to remind myself …there is something to be learned from everyone and everything in the Kingdom. If we, as disciples of Jesus, did more learning and less judging, we might be more help to God in ushering in the Kingdom.






Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tongues and Ears

First Presbyterian Church/ Memphis, TN

September 13, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

I am a storyteller. People identify me that way and I am happy to be recognized as a storyteller. I have so many stories from my life experiences that long to be shared, stories I need to share in order to connect with the healing power of being heard, being respected for what I have survived and being valued as a decent human being among other decent human beings.

Being human is challenging, at its very best it is challenging. We are all doing our best to overcome yesterday’s mistakes and injuries. We are all waking up each morning with hope that we will grow into our better and higher selves. We want our story to have a happy ending, satisfying closure. And we want that for others. So I find myself these days doing more listening than telling. In my storytelling experience, I have come to see that listening helps me to be a better person while it also helps the people around me to be their better selves as well.

The title of today’s sermon, Tongues and Ears, might imply that I am going to talk about hot sex. But, instead, I am going to talk about hot and heavy listening. I am trying to listen to myself these days. What messages am I sending to myself? Which voices in my head get power and authority to tell me who I am and why I am here?

You, too, may have been wounded in the past by the tongues of others. Other voices may have told you, and effectively taught you, that you are not enough, a problem, a disappointment, a loser in the line-up of human beings. And what has been said cannot be taken back. However- it is an insult to the God who created us if you and I wallow in resentment and bitterness about the evil that has come from tongues of others. God’s plans for redemption in this world depend upon our trust in God’s power and goodness within us. So we are called in our discipleship journey to listen for the Word of God and the voice of God.

God created each one of us with a purpose. We are here for a reason, to be part of the Beloved Community, to help usher in the Reign of God. Tongues of others may have done their best to throw us off the highway, to obstruct our view of who we are and what good we might contribute to this world. It is absolutely possible for the evil on the tongues of others to trap us in darkness.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your tongue can speak healing words to yourself. Your ears can listen to lessons of hope from others. And we can all walk into the light together. It’s all about tongues, words spoken, and ears, lessons learned.  Our tongues and ears are vital to our personal growth. What we say to ourselves and about ourselves and how we listen to it are key in how we perceive our place in this world. We are all teachers. We teach ourselves first. And if we hope to teach good and healthy lessons to our children, students, families, neighbors, friends and co-workers then we must first review and improve the curriculum that we have been studying about our own value.

My friend, Karen Gennette, offers to me the gift of “Listening Sessions.” She listens while I talk. Her listening is highly effective as a form of encouragement in my life. One day I talked to Karen about kindness. I recalled experiences of being treated kindly by others and I told her about moments when I shared from the kindness of my own heart. We were both struck by how kindly we felt at the close of an hour. I talked about kindness and she listened to my talk about kindness and we both increased our investment in kindness. I think it was more than an emotional response. I understand this kind of thing to be hormonal. When we choose to focus on kindness, compassion, joy, faith, hope and love we open up the hormonal channels that release endorphins into our blood stream. And we actually become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate and loving.

We see the whole world through our own experiences. If we want the world to be a kinder place then we start by talking kindness to ourselves and asking people around us to talk about kindness to us.

Isaiah says: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” We are all teachers and we teach ourselves before we teach anyone else. It is through our discipleship, our relationship with the redeeming Word, Jesus himself, that our weary selves are redeemed and set free to lift others up to where they long to be.

It’s September and school has begun. Children are seated at desks all over the city and teachers are standing in front of the room doing their best to teach what must be learned if the children are going to succeed.

The Commercial Appeal has a feature section in today’s paper about teachers. What people think teachers are doing as opposed to what teachers are actually doing.  I have volunteered at Snowden School in my neighborhood. I confess that I could not do what teachers are called and required to do day after day after day!  I admire our teachers. In fact, I am in awe of the people who show up every day and manage all that they have to manage in a classroom full of children and young people.

Tony Campolo tells a story about a fifth-grade teacher, Jean Thompson, who looked at the students in her classroom on the first day of school and she said, “I love you. I love all of you just the same.” It was the way she routinely began the school year. But Campolo says that Ms Thompson was lying. We all know that some students are much easier to love than others. How many of you have ever been in a class where it was clear that the teacher just didn’t particularly like you? All teachers have favorites. How many of you have been in a class where it was clear that you were the teacher’s favorite? Right. While somebody else was not. That’s the way it goes in school.

Teddy Stoddart was in Jean Thompson’s room that year. He was not her immediate favorite. He slouched in his desk all the time. He mumbled and muttered when he spoke. His hair was messy. He smelled awful. And his face maintained a rather dull look.

Ms Thompson had access to Teddy’s records. She could have and should have known. The notes were all there in his file. First grade: Teddy is a good boy. He shows promise. He has some social challenges. Poor home life. Second grade: Teddy is a good boy. He is too serious for a second grader. His mother is ill. His father is not invested in Teddy’s school work. Third grade: Teddy is a troubled child. His mother died. His father is detached. Fourth Grade: Teddy is a boy who needs help.

Christmas time came and all the children in Jean Thompson’s class brought gifts to their teacher, piling them on her desk. They were all beautifully wrapped in red paper, gold paper, and green paper with pretty ribbon—except for Teddy’s gift. It was wrapped in brown paper from a grocery sack and held together with lots of scotch tape.

She opened all her gifts and when Ms Thompson opened Teddy’s gift she discovered a rhinestone bracelet with several stones missing. And a bottle of cheap perfume, the bottle half empty. The children started to giggle and make fun. But Ms Thompson put the bracelet on her wrist and held it out with an admiring look. “It’s gorgeous! Thank you, Teddy!” Then she dabbed some of the perfume on her wrist and smelled it, taking in the experience and smiling widely. “How nice! Teddy, this is wonderful!” The students changed their attitude when they saw how much the gifts meant to their teacher. The giggling stopped.

That afternoon, when all the other students had left the room, Teddy walked up to his teacher and said, “Ms Thompson, all day you have smelled just like my mother. That’s her perfume. And her bracelet looks so nice on you. I’m glad you like it.”

After that, Ms Thompson’s classroom was transformed. She had heard a new voice, a new word had been spoken to her and she had listened.  She no longer focused on teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. She focused on coaching, tutoring, listening, being kind… so the students could learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Years went by and Jean Thompson taught many students. One day she got a letter. “Ms Thompson, I’m graduating from high school and I wanted you to be the first to know! Teddy Stoddart.”
More years went by and the teacher got another letter. “I wanted you to be the first to know. I am graduating from the university, second in my class! It has not been easy but I made it."
Six years passed and the next letter said: “Ms Thompson, I am graduating from med school and in a few weeks I will no longer be Teddy but Dr. Theodore Stoddart, MD. I am being married on June 27th and I want you to come. I hope you can make it. I hope you will sit in my mother’s place at the wedding. You’re the only family I have. Daddy died last year.”
Jean Thompson bought a plane ticket and she went to that wedding. She sat in the seat where Teddy’s mother would have been seated.
Jean Thompson was transformed by a student. And because she was able to move into a place of transformation, she gave all of her students a chance to be transformed. She saw in that rhinestone bracelet and the cheap perfume a chance to be part of the Beloved Community. She chose words to say to Teddy and to the students in her classroom that would help to usher in the Reign of God. She was transformed. Teddy was transformed. Her classroom was transformed. The world around all of them became a kinder place. A place of hope. Lonely hurting people became family for one another. The irony of the story is this: When Jean Thompson was retired and elderly, Teddy Stoddart was her family, the one beside her at the end of her days. Her student became her child, a family born from deep listening.

May we use our tongues to speak words of healing and hope. And may our ears listen carefully for what the Word of God has to say to each one of us. We are part of something magnificent.





Sunday, July 19, 2015

Restoring the Soul


Psalm 23
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Kingsway Christian Church
July 19, 2015

When I was a child, we had a brick fire place in the backyard where my father burned trash and garbage. One morning my father was emptying trash cans into a blazing fire. I was about five years old. A metal pipe was sticking up out of the flames and it appealed to me. I reached out and grabbed it, closing my fingers around the hot metal. I screamed in pain. My mother came running outside and put butter on my hand. She gave me an aspirin and we sat together until the pain subsided. She loved to tell people what I said as I sat beside her and sobbed… “Oh, Mama! That’s two important lessons I’ve learned now. One: Don’t ever grab things out of the fire. And Two: Oh, Mama! I’ve already forgotten the second lesson!”
When we look back over the important lessons we’ve learned in life, isn’t it usually associated with some kind of suffering, illness, injury, a loss or a dispute? Nobody wants to suffer but everybody does suffer.
Life involves suffering. Just being born into this life is frightening and painful. Babies cry first thing after they are born and those of us who have been here a while sigh with relief. “Ah, she is alive! She is now suffering with us.” Each of us deals with suffering in our own way.
Last year, in the United States, doctors performed over 15 million cosmetic procedures. Nearly 13 billion dollars were spent on breast augmentations, nose jobs, lipo and face lifts. We do whatever we can afford to do in an effort to deny that we are aging, to avoid the look of suffering. *
An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. There is a rising tide of addiction to prescription pain killers that has touched nearly every corner of our country. The problem can be found in thriving cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York.  But the epidemic is harder to manage in rural and more isolated areas where poverty leaves residents particularly vulnerable and with substandard healthcare systems. ** We do what we can to avoid suffering. Nobody wants to hurt.
In my life and in my experiences of suffering I have learned two important lessons. And fortunately I remember them both at the moment…One: Don’t ever grab things out of the fire. And Two: Trying to deny or escape suffering brings its own kind of pain.
Look at us. We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. We enjoy believing that our lives are grounded in an order that makes sense, a routine that is dependable and under our control.  And yet we come here; we gather in this place, this beautiful church with its lovely sanctuary, to connect with the grace of God and to be honest about our need for the compassion of Jesus. We come here to be healed.  I can relate to the weariness of the disciples and I can also see myself among those who press in for a touch, for healing. We live in both places because being Christian, being faithful, being committed isn’t a vaccine against suffering.
In today’s gospel reading we see the twelve disciples returning to Jesus. They had been out teaching, preaching and healing. Jesus looks with compassion at the fatigue on their faces and he directs them to get away and rest. But before that can happen, the crowds recognize Jesus and his disciples. They press in. Jesus looks with compassion on their suffering. He attends to the needs of the crowd. We imagine the disciples also rolled up their sleeves and got to work, in spite of their fatigue, attending to the needs of that crowd. Wherever Jesus was became the place of compassion and the crowd recognized that. This happens twice. And you can imagine the disciples wondering about their benefits package. Wasn’t there any vacation time in that agreement they signed?
It is as if we are to get two important lessons from this reading: One: Jesus values Sabbath rest. His compassion recognizes that his disciples cannot meet the needs of others without being restored themselves. Two: Jesus’ compassion compels him to meet the needs of others when they come for help. And so it is that the disciples must be honest about their own suffering and humbly acknowledge that they belong to the crowd, the needy people pressing in, begging. I see the weary disciples kneeling and reaching to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He restores my soul…” We know the Twenty-third Psalm so well that it rolls off our tongues. We memorized the verses when we were children in Bible School. We teach the verses to our children and grandchildren. It is so familiar that we can easily miss the power in it: He restores my soul.
An eighteenth-century spiritual director, Jean Pierre de Caussade, wondered how we as human beings can know what God wants us to do, what God expects from us, in any given moment. Are we to rest now or keep on working? De Caussade concluded that God reveals Godself in each moment: in our rest, in our play, in our work and in our suffering. God is present and it is our duty and privilege to discern, to surrender ourselves to that compassionate presence. He wrote: “Everything turns to bread to nourish me, soap to wash me, fire to purify me, and a chisel to fashion me in the image of God. Grace supplies all my needs.” ***
The good shepherd provides pastures with fresh water and green grass for all of his sheep, a place of compassion where all souls are restored. That is what the church can be. A place people recognize as a place of compassion. The place where people come to touch the fringe of his cloak. To be comforted and healed with us. We are not always the givers. The crowd has much that we need to receive. There is no us and them in the shepherd’s green pastures. 
My partner, Anna, and I had the privilege this week of touring St Jude Children’s Hospital. We met so many nice people. Even the guard at the front gate was exceptionally helpful and kind. The place is cheerful, brightly colored with interesting art on the walls. We heard lots of good stories while we walked from building to building and while we ate lunch in the cafeteria. We heard about mothers who come to the front desk with desperation in their eyes and a sick child at their side. The receptionist at the front desk has seen mothers empty out their purses, saying, “Take it. Take everything I have. Just, please, do something to help my child.” And the receptionist has the privilege of responding with compassion and generosity. “Keep your purse. We won’t need your money.”
A place where people come for healing, mercy. A place known for its compassion.
I saw a Danny Thomas quote on one of the walls: “Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It is what you do for others.”
The successful church is recognized as a place of compassion, a place where all people recognize their need to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. A place where all souls can be restored.


*“Nip. Tuck. Or Else.” Time Magazine, June 29, 2015

**“The Price of Relief” Time Magazine, June 15, 2015

***Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, page 262

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Need For Weakness


Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2015
Psalm 123
II Corinthians: 12: 2-10


“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing to be authentic means: cultivating the courage to be imperfect, exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made from strength and struggle and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.” (Brene’ Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection) 


According to ancient Christian legend, God created the angels to worship and serve God. Then God created the world and human beings. “Serve humans and worship me,” was God’s command to the angels.

To the angels, this was a strange command. They were pure spirit. So why should they defer to lesser beings? Why should they mingle with earthly matter?

Now, as it happened, there was one angel who was the most beautiful and brilliant of all the angels. His name was Lucifer, known as the “light-bearer.” Lucifer, immersed in his own brilliance and enamored of his own beauty, declared, “I will not serve humans!”

And so it was that Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven and into a place created for devils.

In commenting on this popular story, St Augustine observed, “It was pride that changed an angel into a devil; it is humility that changes men into angels.” (Kurtz & Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection)

“Have mercy, upon us, O Lord! Have mercy upon us!” The psalmist prays, telling God, “We have had more than enough of contempt. We have had our fill of scorn.” As people of faith we realize that when we pray this prayer in all sincerity, God is most likely in her wise and merciful way to put a mirror before our faces. Because she is most interested in our spiritual growth and maturity, she invites us to see how we have shown contempt for others, how we have been scornful, arrogant and full of pride. Few of us are pure victims and none of us are innocent.

If we pay attention, if we take our spiritual life seriously we learn to pray, “Have mercy on us, Lord! Have mercy on us in spite of our repetitive failings, in spite of our pettiness, in spite of our insistence on comparing ourselves to others.”

In today’s epistle reading from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth we read Paul’s defense of himself. The Corinthians are being seduced by prophets, men who claim to have special powers and mystical connections with Christ and heaven. At one point, Paul refers to them as “super apostles.” He is defending himself as an apostle and he is trying not to boast in an effort to differentiate himself from the boasting super apostles. It’s tricky. He doesn’t want to fall into the pattern of his opponents. And yet he must steer clear of ugly accusations and blaming. That can be so demeaning when we’re trying to look dignified and righteous. After all, this is the church. It is the early church and we can only hope that early Christians abstained from impertinence and pettiness in their relationships with one another. Right? Wrong. Humans have always been humans, in the church and everywhere. Paul is as human as you and I as he defends his position as an apostle.

A story: One night the pastor of a Presbyterian Church, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed to the front of the sanctuary and fell on his knees. Beating his breast, he cried out to God, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” An elder in the church, impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the pastor on his knees, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The church custodian was watching from the hallway. He joined the other men on his knees, calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” At that point the pastor nudged the elder, “Hey! Look who thinks he’s nobody!”

Humility is not self-abasement and it is not self-exultation. To be humble is NOT to make comparisons. It is to recognize the reality: Each of us is no better or worse than the one next to us. We are who we are and on our own particular spiritual journey, trying to connect with the best of ourselves more often than not. We hope to do the least harm and, if we’re fortunate, to find ways to help ourselves and others find God and live in peace together.

We like to blame other people when things do not go to suit us or when things go badly wrong. It’s those immigrants. It’s the city council! It’s the police! It’s the Republicans! We find somebody to blame and that allows us to feel more secure, superior. But blaming is counterproductive to progress as individuals, as a church and as a society.

Included in the article is a short film that shows the NYC subway stop on 36th Street. There is something absolutely unique about that subway stop. One of the steps in the staircase leading up to the street level is a fraction of an inch higher than all the other steps. The video shows person after person tripping on that difference.  Black people, white people, men, women, young, old, a man carrying a baby, a woman carrying a briefcase…people trip. Fast-paced piano music underscores all the people tripping and catching themselves. (It’s funny!)

James Bording observes: “On its own, when you see one person slip, you automatically assume that person who slipped was clumsy or not playing attention. But when you look at the aggregate, you realize that the failure isn’t on the individual at all, rather the structures that cause certain people to fail with almost no fault of their own. And yet, without this data, people will very quickly ascribe the mistake to themselves.” I must be clumsy.

In the case of this subway step, it would be inaccurate to solely blame each individual for tripping. Only by observing the aggregate can we see how a social structure—here, the design of a stairwell—is a more powerful cause of what seem like individual errors.

We all trip. We all deal with larger surrounding forces that throw us off balance from time to time. All of us make mistakes. We get it wrong and have to try again. We’re imperfect.  And because that is true, it just makes good sense for all of us to let up on the blaming and our attempts to one-up the other guy. It makes good sense to find ways to value ourselves and our neighbors. It makes good sense to work together to right wrongs and to leave the world in better shape than it was before we got here. It makes good sense to realize we all need to lean on the mercy of God.

There’s something more, something bigger, wiser and filled with more love than we are able to imagine out there.  That something is the God who created each one of us. While we make mistakes, God does not make mistakes. So it is safe for us to trust that we are who we are meant to be—even with our flaws and shortcomings. We are God’s creation and so are our neighbors. It is as much a mistake to judge and condemn our neighbors as it is for us to allow the negative judgments and condemnations of our neighbors to overwhelm us with shame. Our neighbors’ opinions are nothing in the light of God’s creative brilliance and love for each one of us.

Paul tells the Corinthians that he has struggled with a thorn in his flesh. Maybe he is referring to a chronic sinus infection. Maybe the thorn is a particularly annoying person in Paul’s life, somebody toward whom he cannot feel kindly. Maybe Paul is referring to an attraction for men. Some scholars think Paul dealt with homosexuality. We do not know what the thorn was but we do know that Paul was courageous enough to be vulnerable. He models for us authenticity and vulnerability. Something about himself was not what he would have chosen for himself. Repeated prayers received this response from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Accept who you are and have faith. It is so simple. We find that kind of simplicity so difficult to trust.

Paul concludes by realizing that he is grateful for his weakness, this thorn in his flesh. It is his weakness (an intentional gift from God) that leaves an opening, a place to connect with all that is good. “Just as I am.” Paul might start singing. He was well loved and put to good use by God—just as he was. Just as I am. Just as we all are.