Saturday, April 30, 2005

merlefest 05

You can learn alot about life by being at Merlefest. For example:

1. It is important to remember those who have gone before you. The festival is held each year in memory of Merle Watson, who died in a tragic accident in 1985. Merle's father, Doc, conceived the annual festival, which began in 1988. Over 80,000 folks attend each year. It is held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

2. It is good to hold your elders in reverence. Doc Watson is 82 years old, and is something of a living legend in North Carolina, and a patron saint of traditional music. I am sure that many of the performers who make their way to Merlefest wonder if this will be his last year with us. I sometimes wonder about that myself, and imagine how different this festival will be without him. And yet, there he was this year, making his way through "Rollin in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and "Columbus Stockade Blues". And doing so in fine fashion.

3. It is also appropriate to make way for the next generation. This began, ten to fifteen years ago, with the emergence of artists like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck, and has continued in the welcoming of groups like Nickel Creek and the Duhks, the latter band being featured this year (they are phenomenal). We need the energy and the innovation.

4. People want to watch the masters, but they also want to participate. I continue to be amazed as the number of folks at Merlefest who are carrying around guitars, banjos, violins, and even upright basses. They want to listen, but they have also come to play and sing, and be heard. After awhile, being a spectator can become boring.

5. You can enjoy the traditional and non-traditional. There is a kind of core music that is played at Merlefest---bluegrass, appalachian string music, with a touch of gospel mixed in---but a variety of genres season it all---jazz, blues, folk, rock, celtic, french canadian, latin, classical. Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, for example, record classically for Sony. The variety is nice.

6. You can share your faith in natural and humble ways, and people will hear you. I am amazed at the explicitly Christian messages that are embedded in the songs, and indeed, in the culture of Merlefest. I am quite sure a good cross-section of those gathered are not there to hear these messages, and yet they seem to listen. It's inclusive, and it's real.

7. It is okay to have fun. Sometimes you simply enjoy the good things that come along, at regular intervals, in this life. You eat the roasted corn, you watch the sunset, and you listen to Jerry Douglass, the best dobro player in the world. It's fun. Merlefest is a post-Easter ritual of spring for me.

8. If an event is important, you will endure hardships to be there. I have been at Merlefest and listened to Steve Earle at midnight, in a tremendous downpour. It almost always rains. It is muddy. You ride a scout bus from the parking lot to get inside. You walk some further distance to get to the main strage area. The restroom facilities are, as they say, primitive. It is worth it.

9. Most people in the world do not know who you are. I get around, at least among Methodist and civic circles. I know alot of people in Charlotte, in the triad, in the triangle, even in the mountains. But I can spend several hours at Merlefest, and in general I will not run into anyone who knows me. This is a reminder that I am not at the center of the universe. The world turns, with or without me. The beat goes on.

10. If you stay true to your gifts, and if you really try to hone them and perfect them, and if you are willing to share them, people will find their way to you. Folks attend Merlefest from all over the world. They are construction workers and physicians, bankers and academics, preppies and mountaineers. They share one thing in common. They have carved out this time and have made the effort to be there, for the music, and to remember Merle.

Next year in Wilkesboro! April 27-30, 2006.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

take and read

A couple of you have asked for suggestions about good books to read. Here is a short list of some recently published works, and others that have been out there for awhile, but deserve renewed attention. Take a couple of them to the beach this summer!

Recently published, only in hardback as of April, 05:

Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. An insane woman who loves Jesus, and also happens to be an incredible writer. And funny. You will laugh out loud.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. A moving novel about a minister, nearing death and writing to his young son. She nails the inner life of a pastor. Awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. This book is so good that I am tempted never to write another word again, or certainly never another book.

Tim Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name. An honest portayal of racism in small town North Carolina, as seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a Methodist parsonage.

In paperback, these have been in print for some time:

Wendell Berry, What Are People For? If America has a prophet, in the biblical sense, his name is Wendell Berry, a poet and farmer who lives in Kentucky. If you think the degradation of the environment might have something to do with human sin, Berry can help you.

Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God. The memoir of a young adult, who is the daughter of a lapsed baptist mother and a secular jewish father. She converts to orthodox judaism, later becomes a Christian. An evangelical who is pretty honest about a number of things, including sex, and as you might imagine, she has caught some flack for this. But she is real, as is her God. Winner spoke at the Novello Festival in Charlotte this year.

Walter Brueggemann, Awed To Heaven, Rooted in Earth. A collection of very powerful prayers from one of the great Old Testament scholars of our time. The language is vivid, and reading the prayers leads me into the presence of the Holy.

Tony Hendra,
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. A memoir of the relationship between a comic writer (Hendra), who leads a pretty abusive life, and his spiritual director, a Benedictine monk who lives on the coast of England. There are two surprise endings.

Billy Collins, Sailing Around The Room: New and Selected Poems. I heard him give a reading a couple of years ago. Collins was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2001. If you think poetry is boring or difficult to understand, look through any book by Billy Colllins the next time you are at Borders or Barnes and Nobles.

Monday, April 25, 2005

for the beauty of the earth

I have at times asked a question of people I respect and know well: where do you experience God most powerfully? There are four recurring answers:

listening to great music…
touching and being touched by the poor…
being in the presence of children…
and experiencing the beauty of God’s world.

God speaks to us in many and various ways, and one of the most powerful forms of communication is the creation. The reformer John Calvin called the world in which we live “the theater of God’s Glory”.

The 8th Psalm is a hymn of praise to God for the gift of creation that moves us to awe and wonder, to thanksgiving and praise. It begins and concludes with the words, O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Within these words, the psalm touches on two questions: Who is God?” And “who are we?”

Who is God? God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. Israel’s faith in creation was grounded in their historical experience. Their neighbors worshipped the sun and the moon, the two great lights, as gods. But the God of creation was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a God who speaks, a God who acts, and a God who orders all things. This God created the two great lights, on the fourth day---and I remind us to read Genesis 1 alongside Psalm 90: a thousand years in the sight of God are like a day. Reading Genesis 1 and 2 points to a purpose and meaning for the creation in which we live. I like the saying believing that creation happened by random chance is similar to a conviction that there was an explosion of words, and the end result is Webster’s Dictionary! As someone has said, I don’t have that much faith!

Imagine that you are looking at sunrise or a sunset (I prefer sunsets!), or you are gazing at the ridge of a beautiful mountain, or listening to the eternal return of the waves, or you are caught off guard by the epiphany of a rainbow, or you are visiting the Zoo at Asheboro, or the Aquarium in Baltimore, or you are taking a walk closer to home. Isn’t it obvious that God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life?

The early Christians believed that we could learn to read God’s creation like a book, and that through study of this book, the creation, we could cultivate a deeper love for God. Some of my most important spiritual experiences, as a young person, happened in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Certainly, the sense that I should be open to full-time ordained ministry came there, although I did not understand it fully at first. I would imagine a number of us, here this morning, can remember an experience at a camp, maybe in the summer, where we felt a nearness to God, where we became more convinced of the reality of God, where we began to have a more personal response to the question “Who is God?”

God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. And in the face of such a reality, we are then prone to ask, “Who am I?” And our answer might be, “I’m nothing”. But the scripture has a different answer: You have made us a little less than God, and given us dominion over the works of your hands (Psalm 8.6). We have been given dominion. We are stewards. He’s got the whole world in his hands, we sing, and in reading Genesis 1 we discover that he has put the whole world into our hands!

There is a wonderful story about a preacher going out to visit a farmer. They ride out in a truck to see the expanse, all laid out, as far as the eye can see, and the preacher says, “This farm sure is a witness to Lord!”, and the farmer replies, “yes, and you should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself!”

Well, the Lord doesn’t have it all to himself. In the first of the two creation passages (Genesis 1), human beings are created in the image of God, and given dominion over the earth. And here praise begins to turn toward confession. To have dominion is not to rule or exploit. To have dominion is to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who cares for the creatures, who seeks their well-being, who understands that to rule is to serve.

There is something spiritually significant here: Our care for the earth mirrors our care for God. God cares for us so that we might care for the world, for each other, for all creation. To care for the creation is to care for the creator. To have a reverence for the mountains and the shoreline is to be in communion with God who spoke and called it all into being. And the opposite is true: to live in a throwaway culture is to deny our heritage.

We have abused the creation, and neglected its gifts. Why did this happen? Wendell Berry, a poet and farmer, laments, “the people (Christians) who might have been expected to care most selflessly for the world have had their minds turned elsewhere, to the pursuit of a salvation that was really only another form of gluttony and self-love, the desire to perpetuate their lives beyond the life of the world”.

[For the classic critique of the Christian impact on the environment, see Lynn White's essay.]

We live in the buckle of the Bible belt, and yet we have forgotten that the Bible begins not at Genesis 3, but with Genesis 1. And God created; and God saw that it was good. I am not a native North Carolinian. I am a transplant. My love for this state has always been in part related to its beauty. But in 2005, we must ask the question: have we cared for creation? The Great Smokies National Park is the most polluted of our national parks. An airfield is proposed in the wetlands near little Washington. Our fisheries are being depleted, and the ocean temperatures along our coast are getting warmer.

In the winter I was a citizen member of a group that looked at the open space in our fourteen county region, the quality of the air and the water, the possibilities of bringing people from business, government, land conservancy, and public health together to try to preserve some of rich heritage that is ours. This is important work.

But this is surely not only about politics or economics, tourism or public health. It is a spiritual issue. David Douglas, a lawyer and hiker, has asked the question:

What are our needs for places of silence, solitude and awe? More importantly, what will be our descendents’ needs for them a century from now, in a world far more likely to be drained of contemplative resources? The wilderness exists for its own sake. Along with the rest of creation, it praises and witnesses to [God’s] craftsmanship”.

Our God is the awesome creator, the master designer, the giver of life. And God’s powers are evident in the gifts placed all around us, in the creation, and within us, as stewards. Each of us is a steward.

I recall a conversation with one of our daughters, who was and is environmentally conscious. We were talking one day about the world, and the disarray that it is in, and I experienced a small moment of enlightenment, I suppose, and I asked her, “Do you think your room is a part of the environment?” We disagreed there: she argued that her room was not a part of the environment. I insisted that the environment did include her room!

The point: the creation is not only something “out there”. We are a part of the creation, formed from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2), the air that we breathe is inside of us, the water that we drink flows through us, the food that we eat becomes a part of us. When God created the universe, God made us a part of it. And so, when we care for the creation, we not only care for the Creator, we care for ourselves.

Let us confess that we have not fulfilled our original vocation, to work with the land, to till the earth and keep it (Genesis 2. 15), and we have not taken care of ourselves. We have not always been good stewards. And we are bearing the burdens of our failures.

But there is more. Our confidence in the Word of God reminds us that the Lord does bring order out of chaos, and resurrection out of death. And so, a sending forth: I hope you will begin to pray about the connection between your faith and the earth upon which we live. When Jesus taught his disciples, he often asked them to look at the world, and to make these connections. One this morning will suffice.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6, Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life…” He continues, in the translation taken from the Message: “Look at the birds of the air, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds…Look at the wildflowers…they neither primp nor shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? [And] if God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers---most of which are never even seen---don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you. What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving”.

Look for connections between your faith and the creation that surrounds you. This might be a time apart, perhaps in the spring or summer, to be in the creation, where it seems that God often shows up to display his glory and to remind us of his reality

Take care for the part of the planet that has been entrusted to you. What kind of footprint are we making on this planet? Well, it begins in each of our rooms, because we are a part of the environment.

Become an advocate, an intercessor, for the creation, for your own sake, and for the sake of our children and their children’s children. I want the rivers and lakes and mountains and shorelines to be here when they come along. Someone must speak a word on behalf of the creation.

I cannot imagine my own Christian life without the opportunities I have had to hike, to camp, to canoe, to raft, to retreat. This wilderness places were the open spaces where God seemed to appear, at just the right time.

I cannot imagine that God is pleased with the way his own people are caring for the earth. Listen to Revelation 4. 11: Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; For you have created all things, and for your pleasure they were and are created. We care for the earth because God created it, for his own pleasure. It is not ours to use up. We are stewards.

I can imagine that God invites each of us to appreciate the beauty of the earth---the hymn testifies, “he shines in all that’s fair".

In the name of God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
and Jesus Christ, the first-born of creation,
and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Amen.

Sources: Wendell Berry, The Art of The Commonplace; David Douglas, Wilderness Sojourn; Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

earth day prayer

O God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen:
You place us in your creation, and you command us to care for it.
Your works declare glory and splendor, and you call us to praise and reverence.
Where we have degraded or destroyed earth's bounty,
forgive us.
Where we have taken beauty and majesty for granted,
have mercy upon us.
Where we have become estranged from the creatures with whom we share this planet, grant us your peace.
Renew us in the waters of baptism,
refresh us with the winds of your spirit,
and sustain us with the bread of life.

In the name of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of the new creation, we pray. Amen.


For a remarkable resource linking Christian faith and concern for the creation, see
A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Understanding.


The April 25 sermon at Providence UMC is entitled "For The Beauty of The Earth",
and will be posted on the PUMC website later in the week.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

I have been on the Duke Divinity School campus this week, for the most part. At mid-week I did make my way back to Charlotte for Abby's induction into the National Honor Society (Congratulations, ABBY!!!!), and afterwards we went out with some friends to the Olive Garden, a place I haven't been to in years. I had forgotten how excellent their salads are. We had a very outgoing waiter, who told us a great deal about his life, and was very efficient. We tipped him appropriately and generously. At the end of the evening he shared with us that he was moving to Orlando, where he has a small business related to weekend gun shows. At that point it did cross my mind that I would like to have withdrawn a portion of the tip...but that would not have been gracious or fair.

Meanwhile, I have mostly situated myself in the Divinity School library, tracking down things related to summer and fall sermons and a book I'm writing for the Upper Room related to intercession. I realize that i have become more extraverted over time (if you go with the MBTI theories), in that I am ready to be home, ready to be around people. I have also attended one lecture, an evening Taize prayer service, a morning prayer service directly from the Book of Common Prayer, and had structured conversations with three extraordinary professors (Richard Hays, Ellen Davis, and Geoffrey Wainwright). In particular, I have been reading a remarkable essay on prophetic intercession, written by a Jewish theologian named Yochanan Muffs. I will comment on some of the contents at a later time.

It turns out that Geoffrey Wainwright was interviewed the next day for Nightline, as he is a friend of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. I had hoped my Catholic brothers would turn toward Africa or Latin America, but that's another story...

Another real bonus has been that Liz, our older daughter, is only ten minutes from the hotel. We had dessert one night, dinner another night, and may hit Franklin Street again before I leave town (college students enjoy the evening meal between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m.). She had heard Paul Begala, of President Clinton and Crossfire fame, speak on Monday evening, and next week will hear Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, give a reading on Tuesday evening. She loves UNC, and as a parent said, on the bus at family weekend last fall, "what's not to love"?

It has been 22 years since I graduated from the Divinity School. I feel very fortunate for the ministry I have been able to share, and trace much of the opportunity back to the preparation here. A few of the professors are still around; most have departed this life (Stuart Henry, Tom Langford, Robert Cushman, Frank Young). Others have moved on to other places: Will Willimon is Bishop in Birmingham; Bob Gregg is at Stanford. An amazing group remains however. It really is an incredible school. It does feel like being home, here, for a brief time, and yet it doesn't. It was definitely the right place, for me, at the right time.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

blood done sign my name

I have been making my way through a remarkable book, Blood Done Sign My Name, written by Tim Tyson. It is part memoir, part coming of age tale, part confession, part Eastern North Carolina narrative history, part expose of institutional racism. Being a United Methodist pastor, it is a bit unnerving in that it focuses on a family in the midst of racism and social change, and I realize, in reading this work that I am somehow, for good or ill, shaping my own children and their perspective on life. Or perhaps that has already happened. That they seem free from prejudice, for the most part, I can only credit to the grace of God.

That I know some of the characters--Vern, Tim's brother, was in my congregation in Winston-Salem, and Tim's wife's sister, Hope, is a friend who is now the United Methodist Bishop of Mississippi---makes it all the more interesting. A couple of other families along the way are known to me. That the terrain is familiar adds to the interest as well: you can envision the Duke University Chapel, smell the barbecue and taste the banana pudding, see the backroads between Durham and Greensboro, and feel as if you are walking down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill at the end of a long night.

But at heart, this is the story, relentlessly told, of a murder in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970. A young black man, a Vietnam veteran, is murdered, and his killers are found "not guilty" in the local courts. The community erupts in flames, the despair of the black community having reached the point where it can no longer be contained. I recall this time in Columbus, Georgia, in my own childhood, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.

The title, Blood Done Sign My Name, comes from an African-American spiritual:

Ain't you glad
Ain't you glad
That the blood done sign your name?

This is a call to remember. Tyson insists:

"We must not forget, and we cannot forget. "The struggle of humanity against power", Milan Kundera once wrote, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting". The tragic murder of Henry Marrow--and the assassination of Dr. King and the loss of all those whom the slave poets called "the many thousands gone"---cannot be erased. But that blood, too, has the power to redeem our history. We only have to name it, and heed the call of justice that still waits for an answer. Like the nameless slave poets who wrote the spirituals, we must look our brutal history in the eye and still find a way to transcend that history together. I am standing here until the Lord takes me somewhere else, because the blood done sign my name."

*In our congregation, Providence UMC in Charlotte, Donnell FitzJefferies and I are discussing the book on Sunday afternoon, April 17, at 4:00 p.m. and I will be leading an adult class on Sunday morning, April 24 at 9:45 a.m. A group of local clergy will also be discussing the book in May, over lunch. If you want to take part in one of these gatherings, please join us.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Songs about the joys of parenthood, the expectations of other people,
lost love, the meaning of life, political frustrations, and the ultimate hope
of being in the presence of God. Enjoy!

Cypress Trees, John Gorka
Not Pretty Enough, Kasey Chambers
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Allman Brothers
Straight From The Heart, Chris Hillman and Jennifer Warnes
Still Feeling Blue, Kasey Chambers (in memory of Gram Parsons)
Comes a Time, Neil Young
Caravan, Van Morrison
A Time of Inconvenience, Nanci Griffith
Will The Circle Be Unbroken, The Staple Singers
Baby Don Do It (Don't Break My Heart), The Band
Holding Up The Sky, Julie Miller

14 days until Merlefest.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

meeting Jesus by accident

They are on the way to the next thing. Someone has said that life is what happens when you are making other plans. While they are going about their business, Jesus suddenly joins them, but, Luke reports, their eyes are kept from recognizing him (Luke 24. 16). Sometimes Jesus is traveling with us and we are not aware that he is there. Maybe we are distracted. Maybe we are focused on doing the next thing. The point is that we may not always be the best judge of what is going on spiritually! Sometimes Jesus has been with us in the past and we didn't recognize him—we were looking for something else, or the wrong thing…our eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Paul Farmer was a poor kid who grew up in an odd, and what he would have called dysfunctional, family in Florida. The family situation was so difficult that he found himself doing whatever he could to be away from home. He participated in every extracurricular activity that was offered. He attended every tutoring session that came along. In the process, he became valedictorian of his high school.

He went to Duke on a scholarship. While at Duke he traveled to Haiti with a student group. He fell in love with the people of Haiti. He wanted to become a medical doctor, to help the people there. A couple of years later he was admitted to Harvard Medical School. He was perhaps the most unorthodox student they had encountered. Each semester he would sign up for classes, collect his books, and return to Haiti. There he would practice medicine, and teach himself with flash cards. He would then return for end-of-semester exams. Paul did this each year. Everyone knew it, but there were two problems in reprimanding his behavior: he was practicing medicine in an area where there were no doctors, and he had some of the best grades in the school.

Well, over these years Paul Farmer has stayed with it, living and working in Haiti, teaching now at Harvard Medical School on brief returns to the states. He received the McArthur “genius” award, among other citations. In the process he became a very devout Christian, and often talks about the presence of Jesus in his life, and among the poor. He was in North Carolina recently, speaking to a group of students, and one of them asked, “how did your spiritual values provide a foundation for what you are doing?”

He replied, “I wish I could tell you that spiritual values led me (to do these things)… I can only say that I regained spiritual values by following this path….It wasn’t very meaningful to me…until I started on this path of engagement with the world. And then you needed spirituality”.

source: Islands of Decency: A Dialogue on Healing”, Duke Magazine, March-April, 2005.

Farmer discovered that the more he got into the work, and the closer he got to the poor, the closer he came to Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is there, and we don’t recognize him. Well, these early followers were in just that frame of mind. This stranger joins them, and prompts their discussion: What are you talking about? Why the long face?

They begin to go over the events of the last few days, the ones we have marked over the last few weeks: the arrest, the trial, the suffering, the death, the empty tomb. And then, the memorable admission: We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (verse 21). We had hoped…hope was in the past tense, the hopes have been dashed.

The disciples’ enthusiasm and wonder has been turned into despair and discouragement. We have walked with these disciples, haven’t we? If you are a Christian, if you are a human being, you are going to be disappointed by some person, you are going to be disappointed by some outcome, you are going to be disappointed by God.

Don’t we all say something like this, in our own way? We had hoped that he was the One to redeem Israel? We had hoped that good would overcome evil? One of my favorite songs, sung by Alan Jackson, says it bluntly: Here in the real world, it’s not that easy at all…Why do the bad people seem to do so well? We could make a list: Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, Jerry Springer, forgive me, God, my judgmentalism is coming out this morning!

But, if we are honest, we make our way through life, and our hopes are sometimes blown about by the wind like so much pollen drifting to the ground. The disciples want to give up, they are walking away, they have put their hopes in something that didn't pan out. Maybe you have felt that way, along this life’s journey.

Then the stranger responds, with a question: Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Luke 24. 26) They thought the cross was a sign of defeat. They will learn that the cross is a sign of victory. Yes, they had to be taught this. The disappointments, the sufferings, can be redeemed, if we see them in light of the cross. This is where Christianity is, I think, most directly relevant to life. People are going to be disappointed and devastated, scared and scarred. It happens: at work, at school, in church, in the nicest of neighborhoods, in the best of families.

You can insert your experience here. Christianity is most relevant in that it gives us a way of seeing our life experiences in light of the cross. Some are disappointed, and they turn toward a new life. Some are devastated, and they are somehow resurrected.

Some are scared, and they are able in time to live in faith and trust. Some are scarred, and they experience healing.

They thought the cross was a sign of defeat. They learn that is it a sign of victory. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?

The day is nearly over. They invite the stranger to stay with them: an act of hospitality. Strangers always bring gifts to us. The church that decides that it is large enough shuts itself out from the gifts that God might be offering to it. The society that decides it has reached its population limit misses the gifts that new persons might share with it. All of us were strangers at one point, to this church, all of us were immigrants. You shall not oppress a stranger, the Lord commanded Israel in the law. Why? Why? Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23).

And so, like good, obedient Jews, they invite this stranger to stay with them. They are sitting at the table, and what happens? He takes the bread, blesses and breaks it…(Luke 24. 30). And in that moment, their eyes were opened. God gives this moment to them, but it is a surprise. The surprise is that they are in the presence of Jesus.

I sometimes ask the question, “how is Jesus present, in the institutional church?” And a beginning answer to that question is that Jesus, in the gospels, is always present in the most ordinary of places.

In the death of my wife’s father, we had the occasion to experience the presence of Jesus: a meal with a good friend, on the day prior to his death; the knowledge that many were praying for the family; my mother-in-law’s Sunday School class; meals brought to our home, by several of you; cards and phone calls that expressed your thoughts and prayers; a family meal on the day of the memorial service; a number of you who actually attended the visitation or the service.

I know that the institutional church comes in for a lot of critique. It is not perfect, I am not perfect, you are not perfect. But I cannot imagine that whole experience without the church, which is, in a time like that, the body of Christ, the presence of Jesus.

I also realize, in reflecting on the experience for just a moment, how often I used the word “meal”. This is not accidental. Jesus shared a meal with them. Wonderful things happen when we tell the story and break the bread. When the bread is broken their eyes are opened. This is a surprise to the disciples. They discover this surprise in a small group---only three people. Some of the best things happen when two or three are together--not always in gigantic gatherings. As a young adult I was in a college Sunday School class of three people, when we were all there! I cannot imagine those years without that small group.

Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread. They knew it! Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight (Luke 24. 31). Which means, maybe, that we are not always going to have spiritual highs, times when Jesus seems right beside us. But like the wind, we know that he has been there. We get a glimpse, and just enough light to take the next step, just enough memory to move into the future. It is natural that we want to stay on the mountaintop, as Peter suggested on another occasion, perhaps to build dwellings so that we might stay there, but it never works out that way. Hundreds of thousands of people, Friday morning, after the memorial service for the Pope, the television announcers kept saying, “they are lingering, as if they don’t want to leave”. We understand that.

You can’t stay here”, Jesus says. Life goes on. And then they begin to tell the story of what has happened to them: did not our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road”…and then they began to bear witness, “The Lord is risen” and “they told what had happened to them on the road” (Luke 24. 32, 33, 35).

After they have the experience, they tell others about it! This is testimony. Resurrection living is so joyful that we cannot contain it. Testimony is not someone else’s story. Authentic testimony is our story. I once had the experience of working through a bitter staff departure with a very charismatic youth minister. His leaving was confusing to many people, especially the youth. He was not completely honest with them, and this added to the confusion and heartburn.

A good friend, a mother of two of the youth came to see me. She saw a lot of the situation more clearly than most, and she asked, simply, “but what should I do?” It was about this of year, the end of school in sight, summer trips on the horizon. I said to her, “on one of your long drives this summer, take some time to tell your sons about your Christian experience. Just tell them, as honestly as you can, about how and why you have become a Christian, and why it is important to you”.

The best testimony, the only meaningful testimony, is honest, truthful. When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? We don’t do this very often, we somehow think it has to be spectacular in some way, but it doesn’t. It just has to be real.

A part of our problem is that we have confused testimony with telling other people what to do. Testimony is speaking truthfully about where we have met Jesus. Then we trust the Spirit to allow those words to travel to wherever God wants them to.

The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice. The gospel is good news. On the way to the next thing, while they are making other plans, life happens, they meet Jesus, almost by accident.

Who knows? Something may happen in your own life today, an ordinary situation may be such an occasion, and in the breaking of the bread he appears, and your eyes will be opened, and you will recognize him! It could happen.

Monday, April 11, 2005

immeasurable love

"This, my dear ones, is the great and universal community of all Christians, of the whole Church, of all of us who on this night live once again the birth of God into this world. We break and share the bread, exchanging the same wishes as those expressed by the angels that night in Bethlehem: 'Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men and women of goodwill".

Tonight we are all of us overwhelmed and dumbfounded in the face of the divine love which took on human flesh and entered into the human spirit. We compare our miserable human love with his immeasurable love, and we pray that love may grow within us, that it may never be extinguished despite any difficulties or obstacles, and that it may never dim but always grow stronger".

Karol Wojtyla
Archbishop of Krakow
Midnight Mass, 1969

Saturday, April 09, 2005

random thoughts

After dropping off our younger daughter at her high school, my wife and I were on our way for morning coffee, in the shopping area just south of us. The three prominent stores that caught my attention were Party City, Space Savers, and Eckerds. Then, a little farther down, a Blockbusters, an ABC store, and a southwestern/faux mexican restaurant; then a Jack in the Box. What do these stores mean for our common life in early 21st century North America?

We have parties.
We accumulate stuff.
We take drugs.
We watch movies, at home.
We drink hard liquour.
We are willing to try new kinds of food.
We occasionally need food and we need it fast.


I saw a great movie this week, The Upside of Anger
. Well-written, complex characters, humorous and intense, real. A movie for folks moving through middle age, and yet the younger daughters in the movie are not just there as background. It is a film about the effect of anger on a family, and stars Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. I highly recommend it.


Our older daughter, Liz, is a first year student at UNC Chapel Hill. If you were in a cave this week, or were on an exotic winter cruise, you may have missed the fact that UNC won the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, defeating Illinois 75-70. Sean May had an incredible 26 points, 10 rebounds.

Congratulations, Tar Heels!.


I have a brief piece on the death of Pope John Paul 2, at MethodX. The media will now move on to two dimensions of this story: the difficult circumstance the new Pope will inherit (secularization in western Europe, diocesan bankruptcies and priest scandals in the U.S.) and the call for papal leadership from the global south. An essential reading on the latter subject is The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press) by Philip Jenkins. The appeal of the conservative John Paul to younger generations, another subject of fascination among the media of late, is another subject that has been discussed in another recommended work, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola University Press), by Colleen Carroll.


It is a beautiful day in North Carolina. Enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

john paul 2

The church, across the planet, is the body of Christ. The apostle Paul, writing to one of the earliest Christian communities, described life in this church with a simple observation: when one suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12). In the past few days many, inside the church and beyond it, have reflected on the life and legacy of the spiritual leader of over one billion Roman Catholic Christians, who comprise one-half of the world’s Christians. Pope John Paul II was a native of Poland, and grew up as an excellent student with an interest in athletics. During these years his native country was persecuted, first by Nazism and then Communism. After his ordination as a priest, he trained as a moral philosopher, and was then elevated to the roles of Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal in his Church. In 1978 he was elected Pope, and had served in this role until his death on Saturday, April 2.

John Paul II was a complex, dynamic and forthright spiritual leader. His perception of the roles of women in society (and in pastoral leadership) was one that did not shift over time, and many felt marginalized as a result. His response to the priest sexual abuse scandals in North America seemed inadequate. He exhibited human limitations, as we all do. Indeed, one sitting in the chair of Peter would surely recall the gospel teachings about the human failures of the apostle Peter himself.

And yet John Paul clearly saw the world as his parish, taking the gospel to the nations, calling people of his own faith, other faiths and even no faith to abundant life. Much is made of his use of innovative communications, but it should be noted that, once given a platform from which to speak, he actually had something to say! His training in moral philosophy was seen clearly in his advocacy for a culture of life: he was opposed to birth control and euthanasia, but also to capital punishment, the practice of torture and the war in Iraq. Through the influence of the Vatican he weighed in on the deaths of both Karla Fay Tucker (who was executed by the state) and Terri Schaivo (from whom life-support was withdrawn). His opinions, consistently on the side of life, were either received or ignored by leaders of political institutions, depending upon their own aims and agendas.

Apart from his teaching, John Paul II seemed to embody a personal holiness and a compassion for all who suffered persecution. Having made a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, I was deeply moved by the Pope’s visit to that site, and his prayer, inserted into the crevice of the Western Wall:

“God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants

to bring Your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened

by the behavior of those who in the course of history

have caused these children of Yours to suffer

and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves

to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

Jerusalem, 26 March 2000)

In a fractured world, John Paul II seemed to personify the dream of human unity. The word “religion” literally means “to tie together”. He was shaped by deep intellectual and spiritual convictions, and yet he offered love to all people. His grounding in Christianity, and yet his openness to people of other faiths, are a remarkable legacy. He spoke with authority, and yet he asked for forgiveness.

For these reasons, and for many others, those of us who are not Roman Catholics can be genuinely grateful for the life of John Paul II.

Friday, April 01, 2005

after easter

We have been taking a sabbath week, after the intensity of Lent, the power of the Holy Week services, and the jubilation of Easter. Our older daughter had been with us for the long weekend, and she rode back to Chapel Hill with another member of the church who is also a freshman there. On Sunday afternoon we had a quick mexican lunch, then got our things together and drove to Lake Junaluska. On the way we listened to the UNC-Wisconsin "elite eight" game; thankfully, UNC won, and they are now in the final four.

This week has been mostly rest, walking around Lake Junaluska (2.5 miles) each day (sometimes twice a day) with Pam, eating breakfast at Clyde's restaurant (which is not in Clyde, but is actually in Hazelwood), going to the movies (we saw Guess Who, which is a remake of sorts of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, I would give it a B or a B-), and reading. I finished a superb novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; it comes as close as anything I've read in describing what the inner life of a pastor looks like. We've seen a few friends, watched a little (very little) television, and kept up with the Pope's health via National Public Radio. Pam has been working on pastel drawings, and has completed several of them. One evening there was also a thirty acre forest fire just west of us; this was the excitement for the week.

I drove our younger daughter into Charlotte for a volleyball practice; her team is in a big tournament this weekend in Asheville (it is called, for reasons I won't get into, "Hi Neighbor"). On the way back to Junaluska, again, we ate at Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, which must be one of the three or four finest barbecue establishments in our state.

Pretty ordinary stuff. But I also look forward to re-engaging in the work, and among the people of Providence next week. It is true that being away from something gives a new and appropriate appreciation for it.

Thanks for visiting the blog. I am reading the Emmaus story in Luke 24, and hope to preach on that passage on April 10. More about that later.

My mother's birthday is today, April 1. Happy birthday, mom!

The peace of the Risen Lord... (John 20).