Wednesday, June 29, 2005

everybody loves raymond

The Charlotte Bobcats draft Raymond Felton.

Monday, June 27, 2005

not your typical summer Sunday

Yesterday was a pretty remarkable Sunday. It began with two things going on at once, a Men's breakfast, where Tara, one of our pastors spoke and shared her spiritual journey, which is pretty compelling, and an early worship service. The 8:30 service reminds me of a description of Cub's games at Wrigley Field. When they begin very few people are in attendance, but after a few innings the numbers have increased, significantly. It is that way at the 8:30 service: by the time we have had the processional hymn and the greeting and the announcements, a few more have come in. We pray and conclude with the Lord's Prayer, and I open my eyes and look out and a few more are there. By the 4th or 5th inning it is a pretty good crowd. I am just grateful that anyone is here in the summer!

In both morning services Ray Buchanan, president of Stop Hunger Now preached. Their work is truly God's work, and he reflected on Mark 6, and the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. If we are going to feed the world, it will truly require a miracle.

During the Sunday School hour I led a group of about 80 adults in a discussion of major mission objectives for our church.

At 2:00 p.m., Providence hosted an interfaith gathering that was linked, via the internet, to a forum on peace in the middle east. There were Christians, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, Palestinians present. We listened and talked for about two hours. We were together under the auspices of A Different Future. The purpose of the gathering was to give voice to the great majority of folks in the Holy Land who want peace, but are not often heard over the voices of the extremists on each end of the continuum. An article is posted in today's Charlotte Observer: link.

Later in the evening, two more gatherings: our monthly chapel service, which was full. My friend John from High Point preached, Gladys gave a very moving lay witness, an offering was received for our church's prison ministry, and we sang gospel songs like "Since Jesus Came Into My Heart". Simultaneously, our Vacation Bible School was getting started, children and their parents arrived, making a joyful noise. The two together filled me with gratitude for the past (the faith passed on to me) and the future (maybe God is going to give us another generation).

By the end of the day, I realized that I had experienced enough religion for one day.

I drove home, ate the leftover chicken salad and almost two slices of pizza, and looked at the newspaper for awhile. Who are going to be the Charlotte Bobcats draft choices? (My guess--Chris Paul and Sean May) Why is Shavlik Randolph entering the draft? (He wants to play basketball in Europe) Maybe we will be fighting the insurgents for the next twelve years, a military leader reports. Look for gas to be $3 a gallon in the near future. Then the travel section: it is incredibly humid in Charlotte now, and it would be nice to be hanging out in Blowing Rock. Then the Parade section: which celebrities have coupled and uncoupled? I can't keep them straight.

Then the day comes to an end. A remarkable Sunday, especially for the summer. I am grateful.

Friday, June 24, 2005

walk in beauty

I have participated in a couple of missions to the Navaho Nation, once in 1997, mostly with members of Saint Timothy's UMC in Greensboro, and a second time in 1999, mostly with members of Mount Tabor UMC in Winston-Salem. I recently came across this prayer, and share it with you, in this season after Pentecost:

"O Great Spirit,
whose breath gives life to the world,
and whose voice is heard in the soft breeze:
We need your strength and wisdom.

Cause us to walk in beauty.
Give us eyes ever to behold the red and purple sunset.
Make us wise so that we may understand what you have taught us.

Help us to learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Make us always ready to come to you with clean hands and steady eyes,
so when life fades,
like the fading sunset,
our spirits may come to you without shame".

Traditional Native American Prayer

Thursday, June 23, 2005

after the suffering, what next?

Sometimes it doesn’t add up. “Life is good”, the bumper sticker says, but sometimes life is not good. I probably don’t need to give you chapter and verse. You can think globally---Tsunamis in southeast Asia, suicide bombings in Iraq, HIV Aids in Africa, global warming in the Arctic north; or you can think locally--- a co-worker, or someone in your neighborhood, or even closer to home, perhaps, someone in your family, or something you are struggling with.

You could almost write this part of the sermon. You could stand in this very place and bear witness to the unfairness, the senselessness of it all, you could stand in this very place and shake your fist at someone, anyone, maybe even at God and you could ask, even in a demanding tone of voice, WHY?

WHY? You would not be alone. Job, for one, would stand with you, alongside you (not to mention Jesus, who in his own way also asked the question: WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?). Job would be there with you. We hear the phrase “the patience of Job”, but one of my divinity school professors, Dr. Efird, reminded us that Job was patient for about two chapters. The book that bears his name has to do with this question: WHY?

Theologians have a name for this question: theodicy. The root word has to do with God and justice, God and righteousness. Theodicy names the problem, that in fact sometimes it just doesn’t add up, whether it is an amber alert or a holocaust a generation ago or genocide today or the man born blind in John 9. How can we hold together our faith in a loving and powerful God, while also living in a world where there is so much pain, suffering, torture, inhumanity?

Even asking the question, I know, makes us a little uncomfortable.

The church has never been very good at this, we have never given a privileged place to the book of Job, we want to be the church that swims with the cultural stream, a church “where never is heard a discouraging word”. But there it is, Job, it is there in the Bible, go to the Psalms and turn right. 42 chapters, digging deep into the exploration of one question.

Job does everything right, and then he is nailed, everything he loves is taken away from him. Sometimes someone will come into my office and they are bewildered, they have done everything right, but they have been nailed, in some way, an unforeseen event, a health crisis, a disappointment.

Deeply faithful. Deeply troubled. Wanting to love and believe in God, trying to make it all add up. Job knows where you are, he will stand with you. His friends come alongside Job. They try to make it all add up, in some way. Do you know these friends?

A child dies, and a friend comes along and says,

God needed an angel”.

A spouse dies, and a friend comes along and says,

You would not wish them more suffering”.

A terrible thing happens, and people respond in compassionate ways, and a friend comes along and says,

It brings out the good in people”.

A layoff comes, someone is downsized, and a friend comes along and says,

It will make you stronger”.

These friends are the ancestors of the friends of Job. Job’s friends tell him that he should have a stronger faith, that he should not question (“It is not ours to ask why”, have you ever heard that), that he must be at fault in some way. God has a plan they say. Embrace it. Get over it. Get on with it. Where’s the Job we used to know?”, they wonder.

There is one problem: the friends of Job are of no help to Job. They want closure, they want answers, they are as unsettled by the questions as we are. Oh, there is one other problem: they speak for God, but in the final analysis they are not truthful to God, at least not the God of the Bible.

For 35 chapters or so, the friends of Job have their say, but then, mercifully, God intervenes, God speaks “out of the whirlwind”. The NIV translates the beginning of chapter 38 in this way: Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm.

We have close friends who have lived through the storm. Dale and Kelly Clem were classmates with Pam and me in Divinity School. They were from Alabama, I was from Georgia, and so we shared a kinship. After graduation they returned to their home conference, he as a campus minister, she as a pastor.

On Palm Sunday, 1994, the congregation was worshipping at the eleven o’clock hour. In the midst of the service a tornado swept through Goshen, Alabama, and devastated the Goshen United Methodist Church. Twenty members of the church were killed, including Dale and Kelly’s four year old daughter, Hannah.

Dale and Kelly had experienced the fate of Job. Over the next days and weeks and months and years they would begin to put their lives together, to ask questions, to seek healing. Like Job, they would put aside the easy answers that just didn’t seem to make sense. But like Job, they would also see God in the storm, and know the reality of God in its aftermath.

In his journal, Dale talked about walking through the downed trees in their backyard, in the days after the tornado, and coming upon a little red wheelbarrow. He had left the wheelbarrow next to a storage building outside the house. The tornado had lifted the storage building and shifted it clockwise about two feet. The backyard was fenced in, but there was no longer a fence. A canoe was gone, a bicycle, who knows where it came from, was in the midst of the trees. The tabletop of a metal garden table was missing, although the table was still there. Dale imagined that it had flown away, like a Frisbee.

In the midst of all of this wreckage was a little red wheelbarrow, exactly where Dale had left it. Dale had used it to carry debris in the backyard, but mostly to give Hannah and Sarah rides in it. Dale wrote:

To me, that little red wheelbarrow represented endurance. It had survived the winds and chaos and was ready to scoop up and carry. The little red wheelbarrow became a symbol of faith…our faith that endured the storm and our faith that will carry us through the dark days to come”. Winds of Fury, Circles of Grace, page 56.

Out of the whirlwind, God speaks, the constant in the midst of change. What does God say? Look at the world”, Job, “see the beauty as well as the tragedy, it is a dangerous world, but it is filled with grandeur and freedom and yes, it is filled with the unexplainable”. To read chapters 38, 39, 40, 41 is to be given a lesson in awesome power and diversity of the world we live in. Who could have imagined it? Who can comprehend it?

There are still questions, but now the one asking the question is God, not us. And then Chapter 42, the last one of the book, marks a turning point. Job answers the Lord. I know that you can do all things. I had heard of you, but now I see you. I repent in dust and ashes. Here Job is humble before God’s majesty. It is enough, for him, to know that God is real. Like most of us, Job had known that clear answers were probably not going to be coming, but he wanted to know God, to see God. I had heard of you, but now I see you.

And then the Lord speaks, again: the friends, who gave the easy answers, are criticized by God: My wrath is kindled against you, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has (42. 8). Take these offerings, and go to Job, and he will pray for you, for I will accept his prayer. They give the offering. And the scripture concludes: the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

But the story is not really over. There is one more truth to be discovered. After the suffering, after the experience of God, what next? Job prays for his friends. They comfort him. God blesses Job. And one of the clearest signs of Job’s renewal is that he is willing to have more children. I had read this book for years, and even this passage, and had never caught this until it was pointed out by Ellen Davis, who teaches Old Testament at Duke (see her Getting Involved With God).

Job is given ten children, seven sons, three daughters. He names the first daughter Jeminah, which means, in Hebrew, Dove. And we think of the flood, and its aftermath, and the sign that God gave them, new life.

Some of our very closest friends, Blaine and Beverly, lost both sons in an automobile accident a few years ago now. It is a complicated story, their sons the same ages as our daughters, equally close friends losing another son in the same accident. Life is fragile.

Our friends have journeyed toward the decision to adopt, and they will receive a daughter, this year, from China. I am sure her life with them will be a symbol, like that little red wheelbarrow, of faith, that God does renew the world, that God does repair the creation.

Why do bad things happen to good people, like Job, and Dale and Kelly, and Beverly and Blaine? You have asked that question, for which, on this side of the mystery there is no answer. It is simply enough to know that faithful men and women have walked this path before us, they have held their heads in their hands and screamed, they have wandered through the wreckage, and they have endured the pious explanations of their friends.

After the suffering, we listen for the voice of God and we look for a sign: a wheelbarrow, a dove, a cross. The good news is that God always listens to us,

God is always patient with us, God always speaks to us, out of the whirlwind.

C.S. Lewis had it right: God whispers in our pleasures but shouts in our pain”.

Finally, God does not give us an answer. God gives us himself.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, Job says, but now I see you.

Monday, June 20, 2005

a fellowship that exceeds our capacity to define it

In a sermon delivered on the Day of Pentecost at the Memorial Church at Harvard, Peter Gomes offers these words on the work of the Holy Spirit:

"We should remember, you and I, that we are members of a fellowship that exceeds our capacity to define it. Since the sixteenth century we Protestants have boasted of what we are not, and to whom we do not belong. A religion of protest is essentially a negative, denying religion. Having cut ourselves off from anything beyond our own circle, we have been tempted to make our own circle the object of our worship. It is a dangerous, heretical, even sinful elevation of the particular to the universal, and it is further a denial of the explicit will of God as expressed in Jesus, that we should all be one. Pentecost reminds us that the gift of understanding, that gift that transcends logic and diversity, is the gift of the spirit of unity: union with God and his most perfect will, union with our sisters and brothers everywhere, in all times and in all places, with whom we share and hear in our own tongues the mighty works of God. Such a spirit as this gave birth to our Holy Church and yet sustains it. Such a spirit is its only true and godly hope, and such a spirit, the spirit of understanding, fellowship and grace, is what we seek to express and share as we gather around the Lord's Holy Table."

Peter Gomes, Sermons: Holy Wisdom For Daily Living, page 101.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Discovery Place, a museum in Charlotte, has a current exhibit entitled Grossology. You will learn much at this exhibit that might be new to you; for example, you may not have known that humans produce one quart of mucus per day.

My wife and I saw Cinderella Man the other night. It stars Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger, and it is a boxing movie, sort of Rocky meets Danny Boy (Crowe plays the Irish boxer James Braddock). A good movie, I give it a B. If you are into Irish movies, I would instead recommend The Commitments or The Secret of Roan Inish. Or, if you want something more in the Irish-American vein, rent or buy In America.

Our daughter is concluding her third week in Singapore,with four more to go. She called to wish me a Happy Father's Day on Sunday, which was wonderful.

I love North Carolina, but I struggle with this recent piece of data. We are home to the Outer Banks, the Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Mitchell (highest peak east of the Mississippi), the Blue Ridge Parkway, a significant stretch of the Appalachian Trail, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Mount Airy (aka Mayberry), and I could go on. Guess which destination attracts the most tourists in our state? Concord Mills, a huge mega-mall north of Charlotte. Sixteen million pilgrims visited this shrine last year.

Providence UMC hosts a transnational videoconference next Sunday afternoon, June 26, at 2:00. It will happen simultaneously in forty North American cities, as well as Jerusalem. I will help to host this, along with Rabbi Judy Schindler and Chaplain Kahlil Akbar, both also of Charlotte. You can learn more about the event by clicking the Providence UMC link, to the right.

If you are interested in the subject, a superb three-part series appeared in The New Yorker in May and June on Global Warming. Click here to read an interview with the author, Elizabeth Kolbert.

A wonderful resource for those interested in the intersection between Christianity and culture is Mars Hill Audio. "Mars Hill" refers to Acts 17, and the apostle Paul's speech before the learned and wise of Athens. Ken Myers writes compellingly of the difference between traditional apologetics and cultural apologetics, the former being a response to the theoreticians (such as Freud or Marx), the latter being a critique of popular ideas like "Have it Your Way" or "You Deserve A Break Today" or "Just Do It". Mars Hill Audio produces cds, but you can read the article on the website.

It's a jungle out there! The new season of Monk begins on July 8, 10: p.m., on the USA network.

If you click the Krystal Hamburgers link to the right, you can see a Krystal actually being cooked, and hear the sizzle. Krystals are truly one of the deep south's gifts to the larger world. You rarely find them north of the Georgia-Alabama axis, although there is one in Asheville. The northern version is the White Castle. As we are in the season of criss-crossing the U.S. in our automobiles, I admonish you not to pass a Krystal restaurant without stopping. You can thank me later.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

the language of the spirit

"Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child..."

Praise is the language of the Spirit.
Praise is the expression of joy, gratitude and wonder.
Children speak this language almost innately.
Adults must enter into the difficult labor
of learning this new language.

"It is he that has made us, and not we ourselves..."

We master the language of the Spirit
as we abandon our pride,
remembering that we are creatures,
that the Lord has formed us and breathed into us
the breath of life.
Gradually we learn to "let go and let God",
we find ourselves, in the words of Charles Wesley,
"lost in wonder, love and praise".

"Let everything that breathes praise the Lord..."

We enter into this season of the Spirit
as we receive the gifts of God,
as we are filled with the breath of God.
And in the process we discover
that we are learning a new language,
the language of the Spirit,
the language of praise.
To speak the language of Pentecost
is to be converted to the belief
that God's love is for all people,
that in Christ there is no east or west,
that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female.
The language of the Spirit teaches us
that we are One in Christ Jesus.



The cd that Ed Kilbourne and I put together is now available. It is entitled Waves: An Audio Companion for Spiritual Direction, and includes his music and my teaching on spiritual gifts. Send me an e-mail at, and I will put aside a copy for you at the Providence UMC welcome center. I can also arrange to mail one to you, if you live some distance away. It is a free gift to those who want it, or want to pass it along to others.

Monday, June 13, 2005

if i was a preacher, somebody might say amen

As annual conferences go, this was a good one. An annual conference is a time when Methodists gather to do a variety of things together, and it is a tradition of a couple of hundred plus years. Our new Bishop, Lawrence McCleskey, presided. I introduced him early in the proceedings. His wife, Margaret, spoke and was a riot. There was monotonous business and gatherings of groups for no real purpose; it was hot, humid and crowded; as my divinity school/Florida pastor friend Skip would say, there is still a market for polyester, and apparently for white shoes; most of us tolerate this annual gathering for the reason that it is also something of a homecoming/reunion, and we know, somehow, that it is good for us.

Annual Conference is the one time of year I see many people. For years I was either president or vice president of the conference board of ordained ministry, which is the group that passes, or doesn't pass candidates. And so often I will see someone and try to remember, "now did I have a good experience with that person, or was I the messenger who brought them disappointing news". It seemed to be a quiet year for pastoral appointments: a few people moved, but not many of them. This may be the result of fewer persons making decisions to retire, and I am sure this has something to do with pension funds and the cost of health care. I always have, on balance, a real appreciation for others who are doing this kind of work. As Bishop McCleskey said in his ordination sermon, there is a cost to it, but there is a joy. It attracts peculiar people, this call of God.

There were also small moments of grace: a conversation with a minister with whom I once worked, whose wife died this year; hanging out with friends from former churches in East Bend, Greensboro and Winston-Salem; a long conversation one evening with friends on a deck overlooking the lake on how we might change the world (not the conference,or the denomination...the world); talking with two or three people about writing; enjoying dinner with another group of friends at Butts On The Creek (highly recommended barbecued pork, pulled!), which overlooks Johnathan Creek.

There was worship: having the honor, with my wife, of laying on hands in the ordination of our friend Ann Haywood, who is a pediatric chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; singing "And Are We Yet Alive"; listening to a couple of very fine sermons, given in very different styles, by Rob Blackburn and Arnetta Beverly; receiving Holy Communion. Tara, one of the pastors in our church, was commissioned as a probationary elder. Mary Lou, a member of our church, gave the laity address. Bill, another clergy member in our church, gave the conference finance report, somehow blending the language of financial modernity, fiscal rationality and down home Texas call and response preaching. Abby, our younger daughter, was a district delegate. She hung out with other teenagers, played basketball, and tried to avoid the boredom of the meetings I described earlier. She is better at this than I am, but that is the gift of adolescence.

The ordination service was one of two spiritual high moments. The other was the Africa University Choir, which sang on Friday evening (see the link to Africa University, to the right). They were amazing, uplifting, energizing, and awesome. When Jim Salley got up to preach, I wondered, "How is he going to follow that?", but he did, taking all of us to yet another level, this lay member of a church near Edisto, South Carolina, now Associate Vice-Chancellor of Africa University, he was everything the choir was, and it was obvious to all who were there, and especially when he got into the "Kool and the Gang" riff, which was funny, and people were laughing and praising God and giving money to Africa University, more than they had planned to, I am sure, and he asked, or shouted actually, toward the end of it all, with a huge smile on his face, "If I was a preacher, somebody might say amen".

On Sunday morning, the Africa University Choir sang at our church, Providence UMC in Charlotte. It was everything it had been at Junaluska, although we don't (or can't, or maybe don't know how to) dance in our church; maybe that's just one of our disabilities. Not to worry---again it was amazing, uplifting, energizing, and awesome. Our folks graciously hosted them, loved their music, enjoyed them as people, caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God, and many, I am sure, are still sensing the beat of the rhythms of the African music in their hearts.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

summer in singapore: liz carter

"The second week here has been even more amazing than the first. Now that everyone is over jet lag and settled into their apartments, we have begun to explore more. Recently Dr. Barnard took us to see Fort Canning Hill, the site of an archaeological dig and also of Raja Iskander Syah’s tomb. We also went to visit Arab Street and toured the city’s most prominent Mosque. Later that day we toured the Malay Heritage Center, which shed some light on many traditions, achievements, and important leaders in the history of the Malay people in the Singapore area.

Our group has begun to talk more and more about race relations in Singapore.
As we learn about the many different shadings of the issues in our classes, we also learn about the present state of affairs just by going about our daily activities. It is also a priceless experience to, at one time, be both an observer of a society and a participant in it. Eating at the hawker stands and taking public transportation every day makes me feel more settled here in Singapore, because my routine is similar to that of the average Singaporean. Changes in diet have also opened up new, and it turns out tasty, horizons. Cheese prata, a tasty Indian treat, and Pocky, a Japanese candy, have become my must-have snacks.

We have also been covering more ground academically. In Professor Levine’s class we have broken up into project groups based on personal interests. I have chosen Beauty and Advertising in Southeast Asia. Althea, Laurel, Kappa, Dan, and I are each focusing on particular topics within that. I am focusing on Western influence on advertising and, consequently, regional social perceptions of beauty. It’s easy to see, by taking public transportation or walking down Orchard Road, that advertising is practically an art here in Singapore. As a truly global city, it is bombarded with ads by virtually every international company. The result is a strange combination of many local values, some British values from the colonial era, and countless thousands of new standards, values, and aesthetic principles from anywhere else imaginable.

We are about to visit an HDB headquarters. The government housing provides shelter for around 85% of all Singaporeans. With this briefing session and our home stay coming up later this week, we will hopefully get a better idea of how most Singaporeans live on a day-to-day basis".

From UNC Study Abroad Singapore link to the right, then click "Journal".

Monday, June 06, 2005

help my unbelief

Imagine a large teaching hospital. The masses stream into it, they speak different languages, Spanish and Arabic and English, they are there, people of all ages, from the very young to the very old. A young boy is having a very difficult time, you can hear his teeth grinding, and you can see that the area around his mouth is infected, he is really sick, and then your eyes meet his mother, who obviously is also suffering, maybe from lack of sleep. They are knocking on the door of the professor’s office, the diagnostician, the one who really has the gift, his name is legendary in the building and outside it.

“Professor, can you take a moment and look at my boy?” Before he is even asked she goes into detail, every ailment, every affliction, every medication, every false hope. I’ve already seen your students”, the mother says, “and they were of no help”.

She is hoping, this parent is hoping, that she has found a real doctor. The boy is sick, as the story unfolds, only the mother is a father, and the doctor is a rabbi, and his name is Jesus, and the medical students are his disciples. When we place it in our context it seems to make so much sense, and yet when we read the healing miracles, sprinkled throughout the four gospels, they seem so strange to us. In MARK 9, a boy is afflicted with seizures, and has been for some time. The father brings the child to the rabbi. Jesus attends to the child. Bring him here”, he says.

But not before a comment about his students, his disciples, the “faithless generation”. So much invested in them, and they don’t get it, they can’t do it. How are they ever going to become doctors?” Everything I teach them, the rabbi laments, “it goes in one ear and out the other!”

And so he says, thinking of the boy again, “bring him here”. The father places the boy before Jesus, and here is the first lesson: we must put ourselves in a place where we are likely to meet Jesus. If you never get to that teaching hospital, you are never going to be in the presence of the professor. Sometimes healing is up to us. Some part of getting well has to do with our decision.

In that moment Jesus and the father meet, and there is some kind of battle, between Jesus and this spirit that has overtaken the boy. In the Old Testament lesson, Jacob wrestles with the angel. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus wrestles with the demon. It is all going the wrong way. How long has this been going on?”,. Jesus asks. Since he was little”, the father responds, “but if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us”.

If”, Jesus responds. “If…Everything is possible to the one who believes”.

Here is the second lesson for us: What seems impossible to us is possible with God. God is never confined by the parameters of our thinking, or the limitations of our imaginations. I love the line in the hymn that we just sang: For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind”.

Who are we to place limits on what God can do?

I created the heavens and the earth, God says.

I created light and darkness, God says.

I breathed life into humanity, and you became a living soul, God says.

I roll away the stone, and command you to rise up and walk, God says.

Everything is possible to the one who believes. What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

Who are we to place limits on what God can do?

Can HIV Aids be cured in this world?

Can Hunger be abolished in this world?

Can poverty be eliminated in this world?

Can warfare cease and swords be turned into plowshares in this world?

Everything is possible to the one who believes. What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

q If you are able to do something, have compassion…

q If…everything is possible to the one who believes…

The father responds, “I believe; help my unbelief”.

Here is a third lesson for us: All of us have a mixture of belief and unbelief. Now I know this goes against the grain of conventional American Christianity, but it is true, it is liberating, it is even biblical: all of us have a mixture of belief and unbelief.

Maybe you were listening to that litany of all that we struggle with on this planet, or perhaps even something closer to home: a family relationship, or a financial problem, or a work issue, or conflict with a neighbor.

Could it be different? Is there a solution?

Maybe you understand where the father is coming from:“I believe; help my unbelief”.

The man is honest with Jesus. He could have simply told him what he thought he wanted to hear. Sorry, Jesus, I wasn’t thinking, of course you can do it all. We think first of deferring to authority. We think doubt is the enemy of faith. But he is honest. I believe. Help my unbelief”.

If you are into memorizing scripture, try that one on: “I believe. Help my unbelief”. You see, the struggle of belief and unbelief, faith and doubt is built into the biblical story. Jacob, wrestling with this powerful force, this destructive force, and saying, “I will not let you go until you bless me”. Have you ever had an experience where you thought, “I have been through too much here not to get something good out of this!”

What happens next? Jesus heals the boy. The spirit comes out, the boy becomes very still, like a corpse, Mark says. Most of the students looking in misdiagnose it all, of course: looks like he’s dead”. Here Jesus must have been saying, you have already forgotten the second lesson.

What seems impossible to us is possible with God.

And then he takes the boy’s hand and lifts him up, and he stands, and it’s like a resurrection. This is the good news. Our God heals. Our God gives life. Sometime the healing comes in this life. And sometimes the healing comes in the resurrection.

But that’s not the end of the story. The students gather around the professor. They are shaking their heads. Why can’t we do that?”

You watch Tiger Woods hit a golf ball and you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

You listen to someone in the choir sing a solo and you say, “Why can’t I do that”?

You are in the presence of a master chef, and the plate arrives, and you taste it, and it is delicious, and you say, “Why can’t I do that?”

If this father is honest about his lack of faith, the disciples are honest about their limitations. Here is the fourth lesson: we can always learn from our failures.

The disciples ask: why can’t we do that? It is the human question. Have you ever failed at anything? I have. I saw Tiger Woods hit two balls straight into the woods here last month. I stood there thinking, “I can do that!”

Then I watched him get an eagle on a long par five hole. I wondered, “Why can’t I do that?”

The disciples had failed. They asked themselves, in the hearing of Jesus, “why can’t we do that?”

Jesus answers: This kind of thing only happens by prayer.

The fifth and final lesson: where our energies end, God’s power begins.

You’ve been trying to do all of this, without a prayer. Prayer, it turns out, is the key to it all. Our lack of faith has everything to do with our lack of prayer. Throughout the gospels, if you read them, there are these alternating rhythms of

action and prayer,

engagement and withdrawal,

ministry and retreat,

service and silence.

There are days filled with meeting people, someone touches the hem of Jesus’ garment and he senses the spirit flowing out of him, and other days begin early in the morning, while it is yet daylight, in a lonely place somewhere. Jesus heals, but make no mistake, Jesus also prays.

Maybe that is what he is saying to the disciples. We see the action, the external result, and we want to replicate it, but the teacher is reminding us that what happens in the silence, in the stillness, when no one is looking, has everything to do with the healing of the boy.

Why can’t we do this?

This kind of thing only happens by prayer.

I think about all of this, as a pastor. I was ordained twenty-two years ago, in 1983. Next weekend I will participate in the laying on of hands as our friend Ann Haywood, the pediatric chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, is ordained. I will also celebrate as Tara Ebner from our church begins her probationary journey toward being ordained. I have thought some about my own ordination service. Many folks from my family came up from Georgia to be there. We went out to Shoney’s in Waynesville afterward. I remember the Bishop laying hands on me, and the two elders who stood with me, James Bellamy and Jim Faggart.

A Bishop preached the ordination sermon---to be honest, I can’t remember his name, he was an old white guy, but most of them are! I don’t remember his name, in the same way that some of you graduating high school seniors will hear speeches this week, and a few years from now you won’t be able to recall who gave them.

I don’t remember who preached, but I do remember one sentence in the sermon. Here it is, the Bishop speaking to us. This was the sentence. If you don’t pray every day, if you don’t have some regular discipline of prayer, you will be out of the ministry in five years”.

The teacher was saying to us, the students, this kind of thing only happens by prayer.

So, let us go the place where the healing stream flows, to the place where Jesus is.

Let us remember that what is impossible for us is possible for God.

Let us be honest enough to say that we all carry around some mixture of faith and doubt.

Let us learn from our failures.

Let us remember that where our energies end, God power begins.

And in learning these lessons, let us be a part of healing the broken, repairing the world, redeeming the creation.

All things are possible to the one who believes.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

the ministry is never boring

A weekend in June, this time of year, brings with it a number of thoughts, plans, activities for me and for our family. Our older daughter is spending seven weeks in Singapore, in a summer immersion experience through Chapel Hill. You can learn more about it by clicking the UNC Study Abroad Singapore link to the right, under "important places". That Rumsfeld is there now, speaking about China, is not a comfortable thought to me. I am not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld. But that is a matter that it is not helpful for me to pursue. I place it under the category of the "Serenity Prayer", and "the things I cannot change".

Anyway, our daughter is in Singapore, and the National University of Singapore, and she loves it, wants to go back already, sometime later, although she is still there, now. She has quite a facility with asian languages, and a keen interest in those wife and I cannot figure where this all came from in the gene pool, as we both grew up in medium size cities in the deep south, where a multi-cultural experience was ordering spaghetti at Shoney's.

Our daughter tells me that it is really, really hot there, in Singapore. She mentions this every time we speak.

The weekend really started on Friday morning, for me, trying to finish a sermon on the absolutely amazing verse of scripture, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9). It so happened that I had a conversation with a woman who is taking a break from our church because she is exploring some questions about her faith, and she had been led to believe, by someone, that even asking the questions was not a Christian thing to do. That conversation has shaped some of what will be in the sermon, and the sermon will be on the PUMC website sometime next week.

Then I drove to the Islamic Center of Charlotte. It is a very plain campus, was once some kind of church, you enter it through gates at the end of street over Central Avenue. I had been invited to be there by a leader of the Islamic Center, to appear at a press conference related to a couple of acts of intolerance that have occurred in our community over the past few months. There were maybe eight of us on the panel, including Rabbi Murray (whom I had not met-- I have met Rabbi Judy). Rabbi Murray knows my good friend Rabbi Mel, who i got to know in the Princeton Seminary Doctor of Ministry program. Rabbi Mel must be one of the two most interesting clergy I have ever known (the other being my friend Skip in Jacksonville). Anyway, Rabbi Mel is now somewhere near Miami. Maybe they all end up in Florida, but that's is beside the point.

Several reporters and camera operators were there, which always makes me nervous, as I have a stereotype that media are only interested in religion if there is some sexual angle to it---homosexual unions, priest abuse of children, televangelist affairs---you get the point. But no, they seemed to be there to cover this press conference. My remarks were focused on a few areas: Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls his disciples to be peacemakers (Matthew 5); in the same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands us to treat others as we wish to be treated (Matthew 7). For example, in the US Christians are a majority and Muslims are a minority (less than 1%). But there are countries in the world where Muslims are the majority and Christians the minority (such as Indonesia or the Sudan). I would hope that the Christians in those countries would be treated with respect, and that the Bible would be revered. Should we not do the same for our Muslim friends here?

I also remarked that none of the three traditions---Christianity, Judaism, Islam---would want to be judged by the actions of our worst representatives. And I spoke about the unfortunate link between each of our traditions and violence.

Rabbi Murray spoke, the two Muslim speakers did as well, Leighton Ford did, quoting my favorite Will Campbell story from Brother To a Dragonfly.

Then on to lunch with a number of our senior adult members; then an important planning meeting related to a capital campaign we are about to embark upon; then a wedding rehearsal; then a party for a wonderful family whose son is graduating from high school.

That was yesterday. Today began with
breakfast, a group coming together to seek common ground about a matter in our local church. My wife went yard-sailing this morning, which she must have thoroughly enjoyed. Then more work on the sermon, which is coming together, slowly. My wife, daughter and I then had lunch at a middle-eastern restaurant that serves one of the best salads I have tasted. The wedding and reception await. My younger daughter is an acolyte in the wedding, which is a delight. I will probably look at the sermon later today, and then probably even again early in the morning.

The more I look at the sermon, the more stuff I am inclined to cut. Members of the church appreciate this, they tell me. I realize some things just don't need to be said, or they don't strengthen the point, or they can wait for another day. Sundays come along, one preacher has noted, with amazing regularity.

Parish ministry is not often so interesting as it is just about now, the activities not always so diverse, but more often than not it is. It is never boring.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

free of my own preoccupations

This thought, under the caption Freedom (the discipline leads you from "The Presence of God" to "Freedom" to "Conciousness" to "The Word" to "Conversation", came to me in a moment of prayer:

"I will ask God's help, to be free of my own preoccupations...".
(from Sacred Space)

That is a difficult one, to be free of my own preoccupations. It has something to do with trusting God, or entrusting some part of life, or all of life, to God (to the unseen). It has something to do with letting God set the agenda, which is all about God's will. On another day, the word about freedom came from Ignatius: "There are very few people who realise what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace".

We entertain the possibility of trusting God, or allowing God to set the agenda, because we are beginning to realize that God indeed might do something with us that is beyond our imagining, and this has everything to do with grace.

Our preoccupations are most often shaped by the clutter of a culture driven and shaped by forces that are personally, spiritually, emotionally, politically and environmentally destructive. Our preoccupations lead us to a conformity with the world (Romans 12. 2). Abandonment into the hands of God comes through the renewing of our minds, as we let go.

Augustine, the bishop and teacher of the early church, expressed it well: "God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them".

Today, I will ask God's help, to be free of my own preoccupations...