Tuesday, July 26, 2005

take off your shoes (exodus 3)

A woman looks back at her life and remembers this experience: “I grew up knowing that I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others; a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech.

“When schoolmates would ask, “What happened to your lip?”, I would tell them that I had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.

“There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored- Mrs. Leonard was her name. She was short, round and happy—a sparkling lady. Annually we had a hearing test. Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. We would stand against the door and cover one ear, and the teacher, sitting at her desk, would whisper something, and we would say it back, something like “the sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?” I waited there for those words that God would put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, “I wish you were my little girl.”

Moses has grown up, is married, and has been drafted into the family business, working for his father-in-law. He is keeping watch over his flock, when suddenly something interrupts the ordinary. No this is not Christmas eve, we are not in Bethlehem. We are on Horeb, Sinai, what we would later call the mountain of God. There is a burning bush, a sign. Moses says, to himself, “I’d better pay attention to this”. And so he stops what he is doing, he turns aside.

The turning aside is important. Most of us are so involved in the everyday---working, keeping appointments, shuttling kids from one place to the next, staying current with the mail that comes our way, maintaining relationships with family and friends---most of us are so involved in the everyday that we don’t always turn aside. I will confess---I don’t. I cannot faithfully say that I always notice the burning bush.

Moses turns aside, and a voice speaks: “Moses, Moses”. Almost a whisper. Most of us don’t hear an audible voice, we are a little skeptical of people who hear audible voices, those are people who show up on the dangerous sides of the psychiatric scale, right? But Moses hears something, his name being whispered. He listens, like that girl in the presence of her teacher. He responds, “I’m here”.

“You don’t need to come any closer. Take off your shoes, for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground”. What does it mean when God says, to Moses, to us, “take off your shoes.

There are a couple of meanings. First, it has to do with mystery. Pam and I traveled a few years ago to Israel and went into the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent mosque built over the place where Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice, and where Mohammed, according to Muslim tradition, ascended. When you enter you take off your shoes, as a sign of reverence. Years ago I was involved in youth mission training event in Arizona, and spent the night with a Navajo family. As I entered their home, they invited me to remove my shoes.

Take off your shoes, Moses! What does this mean? It says something about being in the presence of God. It says something about our entering into a different place, a sacred place, a mysterious place, a place set apart. God is holy, his name is above all names, God is not our buddy, our chum, our pal. God transcends all of that, and so when we are in the presence of the God of the Bible, we take off our shoes.

There is another interpretation. When we “take off your shoes”, we are more connected to the earth, whether we are walking barefoot through grass, or squeezing mud between our toes, or soaking our feet in the cold water of a rushing river, or stepping on a rough rock. God created us from the elements of the earth (Genesis 2) and when we take off our shoes, we reconnect with the One who shaped and formed us.

Take off your shoes---mystery. Take off your shoes---earthiness. Both are biblical. God is above us, beyond us, but also within us and in the midst of us. We are created in the image of God, and from the dust of the earth. And then God speaks: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob”. This is not a generic God, this is not an amorphous religious experience. This is the God of your fathers and mothers.

Moses hides his face. It is too much to take in. Moses, in the presence of God…what is going on, in the mind of God, what is God thinking? “I have seen the affliction of my people”, God says. Think of the teacher who noticed the affliction of a little girl. “God is watching us, from a distance”, the Africa University Choir sang, a few weeks ago. We can hide human suffering and torture, but God sees. “I have seen the affliction of my people, and I know their suffering”. The biblical word for know means to be intimate with. God is personally connected to human suffering. That teacher was connected to the suffering of her student: “I wish you were my little girl”. When human beings suffer, the God of the Bible suffers.

“I have seen the affliction of my people, I know their suffering, I have come down to deliver them”. God takes sides. God is not neutral. God always comes down on the side of human suffering. “I have come down to deliver them”, God says. “How?” Here is where it gets interesting. God says, “I have come down to deliver them…I am sending you!” I am sending you to Pharoah! 300 miles to the west were the Pyramids. Think of the power, the size, of all they represented. Think of the most powerful human being on the planet. Go back to the guy just going about his business, Moses.

“I am sending you to Pharoah”, God says. Have you ever been asked to do something that was beyond your strength, your expertise, your power? Well, Moses has been there too. God is calling him to do something big, something that will alleviate the suffering of his people. “You are going to free my people”, God says. “You are going to bring them out of Egypt”, God says.

It is all sinking in, with Moses, the enormity of it all, the impossibility of it all. And then along with the call, a promise, in chapter three, verse 12: “I will be with you”.
God has interrupted Moses’ life, and God is laying on him a pretty big assignment. Moses is working it out in his own mind, and in the remainder of chapters three and four he carries on this conversation. Moses gives four reasons why God has asked the wrong person.

First, Moses says, “who am I?” to do this. In other words, when God wants to do something big in the world, God chooses a big person, right. “I am not that kind of person”. This is the way the world thinks. I was a part of a group of citizens, working on a project that would improve our city and even our region. How could we get it done? Let’s ask __________ (you fill in the blank) to be the chair of it! Then it would happen.

Listen to these words from I Corinthians 1. 26-29. "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise, by human standards. Not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and dispised in the world, things that are not, To reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God".

God chooses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. We think, “I’m not capable, I’m not special, I’m not worthy”…God responds by saying, “Are you available?” Availability trumps capability and credentials every time.

Second, Moses says, “Who are you?” Who will I say has sent me? Where does my authority come from? What knowledge do I have to share? We do sometimes hesitate to speak for God, to share his name, because we think I need more authority (let the preacher do it) or I need more training (then I would feel comfortable. Who are you? God says, I AM WHO I AM. In other words, “God’s name is enough, God’s power is enough, if we trust in the name of God and speak it, it will make its own way.

Third, Moses says, “What if I fail? What if they don’t believe me?” None of us wants to fail. I’ve been called to teach a children’s Sunday School class…what if I can’t control them? I’ve been called to lead a group of youth..what if they don’t like me? I’ve been called to lead a committee…what if I make some kind of mistake? I’ve been called to visit newcomers…what if I ‘m terrible at it? I’ve been called to be the senior minister of Providence United Methodist Church? What if I really mess it up?

God gives Moses a sign, actually three signs. We will talk about the signs and plagues in a couple of weeks. Often God gives us a sign. Yes, it’s a challenge sometimes, but if it weren’t a challenge, you wouldn’t need God, would you, you wouldn’t have to trust, would you?

The last excuse. Moses says, “You want me to speak to Pharoah, but I’m really not a good speaker…now my brother Aaron, he is a good speaker. Send someone else!” Have you ever found yourself saying that…you must have me confused with someone else, ask them! The excuses come easily for Moses---they do for us as well---but Moses is obedient. He goes to Pharoah, and says, “let my people go”. God uses Moses, just like God uses us. God calls Moses, and God calls you, and me.

The holy ground is the place where God becomes real to us, where we hear a call to do something, where we wrestle with it, and where we respond in obedience.

Some of us might need to turn aside and listen, and maybe for the first time in your life God is real, God is speaking, God is calling for some kind of decision. Some of us might need to take off your shoes. Church, religion, has become too familiar. God is calling you to remember his holiness. Some of us are wrestling with God over some call. It just doesn’t go away. Some of us are ready to do something courageous. Why not? Why not confront Pharoah? If God is for us, who can be against us? God is real, the bush is burning, the ground is holy, Pharoah is there. God is whispering our name. What will we say? What will we do? God is waiting.

Sources: John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason. New Interpreter’s Bible: Exodus. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, www.gratefulness.org, “Sacramental Life: Take Off Your Shoes”. Maxie Dunnam, The Communicator’s Commentary, “Exodus”.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

summer paradoxes

The summer, in our parts at least, holds within it all sorts of paradoxes. You love to see the kids travel, head out for retreats and service projects. You miss them. You want them to come home. You resent the mess that they bring back with them. You love the reduced schedules, as committees meet with less frequency. You love the pace, but you are bogged down by the heat. You have time to walk in the evenings--the days are longer---but the humidity makes that almost impossible, some days.

You recall the imagery of the New England preachers who left the cities and retreated all summer to craft sermons for the coming nine months, but you realize that life in a congregation doesn't quite follow an academic pattern---congregants die, administrative projects move forward, or they stall, people do worship God, some of them with regularity, on Sundays, even deep in the heart of July. You plan family vacations, but then your teenage children make their own plans, with their peers, and all of a sudden there are overlapping calendars that defy order or consolidation. You think of pushing it all into the fall, but stewardship campaigns, renewal services and charge conferences await. Better do what you are going to do now.

Summer does have its enjoyments---no early morning alarm clocks, no crowded urban school parking lots, the opportunity to watch Charlie Rose, if you want to, or a new season of Monk, or a few innings of Braves baseball, or to catch up with friends here and there.

Yes, the congregation is sometimes a bit sparse, just a bit, but by grace on some Sundays it is not that noticeable, it seems to be a critical mass, and even so there is time to talk with people, time to catch up with them too, time to catch your breath, even if it means going in after the class has begun (or even skipping it1, or getting away later from the service.

And so the summer is not quite the undisturbed vacation, but neither is it quite like the rest of the year. It is a time to think about sermons, at least through the late fall. I'm currently working my way through Exodus. It is a time to look at the months ahead on the calendar and ask: is it too full, should I accept that invitation, should we offer this class, or are things best as they are now? It is a time to slow down, to make peace with the heat, to drink more ice water, to read a little more of the newspaper, maybe even a novel or two, and yes, when possible, to squeeze in that short trip or two, or three, to the mountains. The fall, with its financial decisions, volleyball games, pta meetings, denominational paperwork, and family weekends, cannot be far behind.

"How is your summer?", I ask a friend as we pass each other in atrium after the last service. "It is almost gone", she replies.

True enough. Yes, it's hot. But it's summer. Enjoy it!

Friday, July 22, 2005


Buddy Miller, I Worry Too Much
Patty Griffin, Standing in the Shadow of The Heat
Van Morrison, Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)
Emmylou Harris, Satan's Jewel Crown
The Band, Baby Don't Do It
Maura O' Connell, Blue Chalk
Marvin Gaye, Mercy Mercy Me
Diana Krall, Cry Me A River
Gregg Allman, These Days
Nanci Griffith, Once in a Very Blue Moon
Lyle Lovett, She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants Too
Emmylou Harris, Sin City
Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, All The Rain
John Gorka, Cypress Trees
Ry Cooder, Jesus is on the Mainline
Jackson Browne, For Everyman
Miles Davis, So What
James Taylor, Up On The Roof
Buddy Miller, There's A Higher Power

Thursday, July 21, 2005

saint catherine

Our large congregation is composed of many people, with varying interests, temperaments, needs and callings. One of the most influential holds no particular position or role, and yet she is one of our most prominent members. She has difficulty breathing, due to age and declining health, and yet her voice is heard loud and clear, especially by the people who are called on their birthdays. She is a frail person, and yet there is within her a deep inner strength. She has watched a number of very different pastors come and go over the last forty-seven years (she joined our congregation in the year that I was born), and she is appreciative of them all, seeing only their strengths and disregarding their limitations. She has overcome a number of personal and family crises in her own journey, and yet her great concern is most often about the needs of others. She has an absolute love for her local church, and a great desire to be in worship, and yet being present is becoming less and less frequent. Her name is spoken with awe and reverence by those who know her, and her posture is always one of profound humility. She is a living example of how one individual can change the lives of countless people. She is a saint because the love of God shines transparently through her.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

God alone suffices

Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing frighten you
All things pass away
God never changes
Patience obtains all things
He who has God
finds that he lacks nothing
God alone suffices

Saint Teresa of Avila

Thursday, July 14, 2005

a purpose driven person

This, from Shane Raynor's blog, caught my attention. link

child of blessing, child of promise

The story, found in Exodus, is situated in an ominous setting. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph”. It is a regime change, a new administration is in power, and it is not good. The flow of salvation history that began with Abraham and Sarah and continued in the lives of Isaac and Jacob and Joseph is now interrupted. A new king arose who did not know Joseph, or his God”.

The Israelites are fulfilling the mandate given them in their creation story: be fruitful and multiply. They are growing strong, and they are doing the actual work, the actual labor, of the empire, Egypt, building cities like Rameses, for Pharoah. These manual laborers are growing so large in number and so prosperous that the thought occurs, in the minds of the politicians, “they could become a threat to us, to our way of life”. And so the Egyptians become more ruthless to them, they make their lives harder with bitter service. But this, apparently, is not enough. The word comes from Pharoah, the king who does not know Joseph, or his God: if you see a Hebrew woman giving birth to a boy, kill him….throw him into the Nile”.

The children are a threat to their way of life. This is not so far from us, if we ponder it. Use your imagination: how, in our world, do we see children not as a blessing, but a threat to our way of life? Pharoah saw these people, and the children who would come after them, as a threat. It is an ominous setting. As one of my favorite poems, written by Madeleine L’Engle, about a birth at another time in history begins, "This was no time for a child to be born".

The focus narrows, now, from seeing the larger world to an intimate setting, the birth of a child. A Levite woman, an Israelite, gives birth to a son, healthy, and she hides him for three months. Then she puts the baby in a basket---the literal Hebrew word here is found in one other place in the Old Testament---it is the word for ark. She puts the baby in an ark, and he sails down the river. She looks on, at a distance. What is going to happen to that baby? If you have children, you have been there. It is called “letting go”.

When we put them in a weekday school, we are letting go.

When we push them into the school bus, we are letting go.

When we send them off to camp, we are letting go.

When we leave them in the college dorm, we are letting go.

When we watch them go off to war, we are letting go.

When we see them walking down the aisle, we are letting go.

It is like sailing down the river, floating on the ark, in the midst of the winds and the wave, and we are hoping they make it safely to their destination. Have you ever had that feeling? My friend Jim Jackson is a Methodist minister in Houston, and he described this feeling well. He and Susan had prepared for their son’s transition to college. Jimmy, their son, would enter Davidson. He was a good kid. Davidson was an excellent school. Jim, the father, did not consider himself an “emotional” person. Susan, his wife, had been talking for months about how difficult this was going to be.

Finally they reached the point in the Orientation Schedule where it says “Parents leave”, and the family made their way to the parking lot. During the goodbyes and the tears Jim experienced a flashback. He remembered an experience in a parking lot a few years earlier. Jimmy was twelve, and had gone to his first week-long Boy Scout Camp. On Wednesday night there was a cookout for campers and their parents. The father drove out, and his son met him in the parking lot, begging him to take him home.

Jim said, “later that evening I left him crying in the parking lot. Driving away and leaving him sobbing was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I left him there because he needed to learn to stand on his own two feet and to see things through”.

Well the camp ended, Jimmy won a number of merit badges. He had taken a step toward becoming an adult. The child had, of course, quickly gotten over the trauma. The parents had lost two nights of sleep for nothing!

Now Jim realized that the shoe was on the other foot. He said: “I was the one who was crying in the parking lot, and Jimmy was the one encouraging me to believe that everything was going to be alright. “Things have a way of changing, don’t they?”

It is about letting go. Moses sails down the river, in the ark. And who should come to bathe at the river but the daughter of Pharoah? Oh no”, we might think. This is the end. But there is a surprise. She opens the basket and sees the child. He is crying. And she takes pity on him. She has compassion.

It is a dangerous world for a child. There are dangers we know about---the little girl in Idaho, a teenage girl in Aruba---and there are dangers we know nothing about---children sold into sex slavery in southeast Asia, children drafted into warfare in Africa. It is a dangerous world for a child. In the middle of the night a man and a little girl enter a restaurant, almost hidden from the sight of the public, they order their food, and then a waitress, who might have had all kinds of reasons for not getting involves, just working the third shift, takes pity, she has compassion. We know this story.

Pharoah’s daughter senses immediately that this boy is a Hebrew. But then another woman intervenes….the women in this story are the heroes….as they so often are, the women in this story outsmart the men, as they often do. Should I go and find a woman to nurse the child?”, she asks. Yes”, says the Pharoah’s daughter. Again, this takes some courage. And so, in a perfect gesture, the sister returns the child to his mother. And Pharoah’s daughter is even going to pay her to do this! The biblical scholars and the rabbis note how cunning the women in this story can be!

So the child grows up, and is later returned to the Pharoah’s daughter, where he is adopted into the royal household. He is given the name Moses, “because”, she says, “I drew him out of the water”. There are lessons to be learned as we think about this ominous setting and the birth of this child, in the midst of it all.

Lesson Number One: God has a purpose, for human history, for our own lives. Think of the decisions of Moses’ mother, of his sister. In the gospels of the New Testament, think of Joseph and his dream. God’s purpose is often carried out in the decisions that ordinary people make, to do the right thing, to do the courageous thing. The small decisions that you make may become a part of God’s purpose.

Lesson Number Two: God sometimes uses unlikely people to accomplish his purposes. Consider the actions of the Pharoah’s daughter, or the shepherds and maji in the New Testament gospels. Think about your own life, and the unlikely people who intervened---the parents of a friend, an aunt or uncle, a coach, a Sunday School teacher, a choir director. God uses unlikely people.

Lesson Number Three: The pharaohs of the world, the Herods of the world, do not always prevail, even though they seem to have the power. It sometimes seems that there is no hope in prevailing against evil, or inhumanity, or greed, or raw political power. And yet watch: God is not content to allow the pharaohs of this world to destroy the world that he has made.

There are lessons with this brief passage. But let’s focus for a moment on the child. Moses is a child of blessing, and he is a child of promise. He is blessed. He might have been drowned in the Nile. He might have been killed in some other way by Pharoah’s policy. He might have been discovered by a less compassionate person. Think about your own life, how it might have been different? Moses is blessed. We know this by the words at the end of the lesson, by the very name given to him: I drew him out of the water. I rescued him. I saved him. This is prevenient grace, the grace that goes before our human response. Salvation is not our work, our effort, lest we should boast, as Paul writes in Ephesians. It is a gift of grace. When a child is baptized, he or she is touched by these very same waters, and reminded that she is a part of God’s purpose, God’s plan.

Moses is also a child of promise. He is rescued, saved for a purpose. This is sanctifying grace, the grace that follows our salvation, that completes our salvation. We are saved for a purpose. Why was Moses drawn out of the water? Moses is going to lead his people to freedom. Sometimes, as Christians, we think that if we have been baptized or accepted Christ or been confirmed, this is some kind of revered status, maybe one that makes us better than other people. One of my favorite lines of late was spoken about a prominent politician: he was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple!

We forget that it is all grace. Think about the people who saw you through the eyes of compassion, who took care of your needs, who kept you from falling in over your heads. And sometimes, once we have become a Christian, once we have been adopted into the royal household, we think that’s it, the equation is completed.

Every Christian is a child of blessing, and a child of promise. The blessing is what God has done for us. The promise is what God wants to do through us. The blessing is where we have been. The promise is where we are going. The blessing is what we receive. The promise is what we are asked to give. The blessing is that grace has brought us safe thus far. The promise is that grace will lead us home.

In 2005, it is an ominous world, a dangerous world to be a child. If a leader can crush the people, he or she often does. Pharoah is very much alive. And perhaps we wonder: Who will save us? Perhaps a new Moses is being born, even now.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Sources: Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”; Jim Jackson, Spiritual Lessons From Life, First UMC, Lubbock, Texas. James Newsome, Exodus (Interpretation); Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth”.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

the blogosphere and where I fit

Blogs are a fairly recent invention, gaining most of their public attention from political buzz, and most of their practical application from college students. These two types of blogs are in fact very different. They do represent a democratic impulse, a flattening of communication, to borrow Tom Friedman's phrase. Anyone with access to the web can, with a little effort, start a blog.

I like to read a few of the blogs that are linked to the right of this message. St. Phransus is funny and extremely creative. Shane Raynor is more conservative than I am (Wesley Blog), but I like what he is doing. Some others are more liberal than I am as well. At Locusts and Honey you will find profiles of bloggers and a summary of the weekly Methodist blogosphere. I also read Titus One Nine because the author, Kendall Harmon, is writing about the present crisis in the Episcopal Church, which has some relevance for our denominational addiction to infighting.

If you notice, the links tend toward the traditional/conservative regarding the religious and spiritual, and the non-conservative related to political and social action in the world (although there are exceptions on both counts). This is in fact a tension that I carry within myself. I long for a Christianity that is very traditional in doctrine and very compassionate and justice-oriented in daily life. I fail in appropriating the best of these two streams, and life would be simpler if I lived in only one---if I were more liberal in my faith, for example, or more conservative in my politics. But I am not wired that way. I await some kind of renewing of the mind (Romans 12).

I cope with this division, within myself, by trying to have fun in life, and some of the links reflect that: ACC basketball, barbecue, country music, The New Yorker, Monk, festivals. I suppose I am giving folks permission to have some fun, to experience a little joy in life. It really is okay to do that.

Along those lines, this summer I have read, again, a superb book by John McPhee entitled Encounters With The Archdruid, which is about David Brower, former president of the Sierra Club, and his travels in the wilderness with a geologist, a developer, and a government official. It if funny, insightful, and instructive in bringing people together who see the world in very different ways.

Thanks for reading this blog. I know that if I got into some of the more controversial junk that floats along this river of life, the number of hits would go into the ten thousands, but I can actually withstand that temptation. Not that there aren't others that I am working on.

Enjoy your time visiting here, and come back soon.


Monday, July 11, 2005

linda tatum: stories from the road

A sermon preached by my friend Linda Tatum, who is a member of Saint Timothy's UMC in Greensboro, North Carolina, former lay leader of that church, an award-winning short-story writer and a graduate of the Upper Room's Academy of Spiritual Formation. It is entitled "Stories From The Road", and is based on two scripture passages--Genesis 18 and Matthew 9:

"When I was growing up in Garner, a community just east of Raleigh, I got to spend a week each summer with my grandparents in a small town in the next county. Selma was the town’s name. Even though I visited there quite often with my parents, I always looked forward to the wonderful exhilaration of going away from home on my own to spend a whole week. At the time, I never thought about the even greater exhilaration my parents were probably feeling at about the same time.

The summer I was about 12, my parents drove me to my grandparents’ house less than an hour away on a Sunday afternoon. It was decided that my return trip would be by train. Even though the era of bustling passenger train travel had slowed to a trickle, Selma was a rail hub and Garner had a tiny wooden station about half the size of the house on this property.

My grandfather helped me onto the train bound for faraway places like Richmond or New York City. He saw that I was settled in my seat, and he and my grandmother waved and waved and waved as the train pulled out. They shouted last minute instructions and messages for my parents and sister. My grandmother threw kisses and my grandfather tipped his hat like I was off to Siberia and it would be years before we could see each other again.

It was almost embarrassing to have a big send-off like that for a 45 minute trip. I was always a little embarrassed at the lavishness of their love.

During the train ride, the conductor stopped at my seat and spent a lot of his time in conversation with me. He had seen my grandparents put me aboard at the station. He pointed to the shoebox on my lap—a blue box with white cursive letters spelling out Butler’s Shoes—and wanted to know if the box contained fried chicken.

I guess it was a natural leap in his mind, that such a loving send-off would have included home cooked food for the journey. I barely hid my indignation. The box held my white Sunday shoes. The ones with the little tiny training heels—an important symbol of my sophistication and maturity. The shoebox held shoes, not fried chicken. My womanhood was wrapped up in the precious content of that box.

You would think that something that precious would move me to take good care of it. But I confess, with all the tumult surrounding my homecoming, I did not even know I had left the box behind until the next day. My mother got a telephone call. It was from someone at the Garner train station. There was a package waiting for her to pick up.

The package, of course, was the shoebox. Scribbled in black handwriting over the Butler’s logo were these words: “Little girl in Garner, whose mother is librarian.” I had been tracked down through the clues in our conversation--googled before google was invented. The conductor did not know my name, but he knew who I was through my relationships and my shoes were returned to me, the little girl in Garner whose mother is librarian.

Why should I tell you all this? The point I want to make is about what it’s like to be lovingly sent out into the world. What it’s like to have love behind you and love ahead of you. What it’s like when the Good News of God’s Kingdom is in our hands to share on our journey. We can let it rest protected on our knees, or we can talk about it and share our experience.

If you have ever studied literature in school, some teacher has probably told you that there are only a certain number of plots to a story. There is a lot of disagreement, but some say that the number of different plots for a story is 36.

Some boil it down even further than that. You can sound in-the-know if you cite Tolstoy or Gardner in claiming that there are only two kinds of stories worth telling: (1) a stranger comes to town and (2) someone goes on a journey. Think about it. What are some stories we all know—The Wizard of Oz, someone goes on a journey. The Three Little Pigs, a stranger comes to town. You may not buy that kind of oversimplification, but it’s fun to look at stories and see how they fit one or both of these patterns.

Let’s think about the scene with Abraham and Sarah first. By the time we get to this place in their story in Genesis, God has made a covenant with Abraham, blessing him to be a blessing to future generations. They have made promises of faithfulness to each other and Abraham and Sarah have gone along with the deal even though their marriage has produced zero children for many years. They were both senior citizens now. At age 100 for Abraham and 90 for Sarah, thoughts of retirement were probably creeping into their dreams, not starting a family. And who would blame them?

But a stranger comes to town. Not just one stranger, but three strangers, three holy messengers. One of them Abraham even calls Lord. The Celtic devotional writer David Adam paints an imaginative picture of what the scene could have been like. Abraham notices a rise of dust in the distance, maybe wavering figures in the intense heat. When they are close enough that he realizes they are strangers, he rushes out from the shade of his tree to greet them. He welcomes them, treats them like royalty, offers them every hospitality. He sees that their feet are washed. He orders a fancy feast meal to be prepared, he sees to their comfort.

Strangers have come to town, and do they have big news for the faithful couple. They tell Abraham, and Sarah overhears, that by the time they return “in due season,” Sarah will have a baby. This comes as pretty shocking news to Sarah listening on the other side of the tent flap. She lets out a famous hoot of laughter. It’s all too wild to imagine. But it’s true.

The strangers are no ordinary travelers—not tourists passing through, not businessmen or herders—but travelers carrying God’s message for them. Abraham and Sarah will indeed be the revered parents of generations of followers of God, and the generations will start with one flesh-and-blood baby, to be called Isaac, born to a very unlikely woman. After decades of a barren life, incredible as it may seem, new life is on the way. God is in charge. God is changing things and messengers have traveled to tell them the news. It was an interruption of the status quo. A stranger comes to town.

Now, let’s look at Matthew’s story of Jesus getting his disciples ready for an important road trip. In this passage, Jesus has been preaching to a big following. As he looks out on the crowd, he sees all kinds of needs that are not being met. He sees the suffering people as “sheep without a shepherd.” His heart goes out to them and the tasks ahead seem overwhelming. There are not enough hands for the harvest, he says. So he asks his disciples to pray for more laborers. And they do pray.

This may be a case of “be careful what you pray for,” because as soon as the praying is over, Jesus commissions 12 followers to be apostles, which means to be sent out. He commissions them to go out on the road and do what needs to be done to get out the word that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew lists each one by name and it looks like an odd mix of guys for the job—fishermen, sets of brothers, a tax collector, for goodness sakes—how effective do you think he’ll be as a door-to door purveyor of the Good News?—even the man who will betray Jesus is on the list. Are these really the guys for the job?

These men are going on a journey. They are preparing to be the strangers who come to town. We know enough of the story to know that they will not always be welcomed with lavish footcare and fancy feasts, even though they bring the most wonderful news that has ever been told.

And how, exactly, does Jesus tell them to bring the message? Start classes? Buy a piece of land and build a church? Publish a scroll? No.

He tells them to get out there in the world, be a first class shepherd. Care for the sheep who suffer, the sheep who are lost, the sheep without hope.

I’ll say a word about just one of Jesus’ directives—cleanse the lepers. I know something about feeling like a leper, an untouchable, and maybe you do, too. A few years ago, I broke my left arm very badly and had to have a metal bar called an external fixator surgically screwed through the flesh and into the bones to hold them together. Have you ever gone to the grocery store with a metal bar screwed into your arm? Even with the protective cover, it looks like you are carrying an Uzi or some other kind of weapon. People winced when they saw me or turned in fear. At a dinner party, I thought one man was going to lose his lunch, and he told me the sight of my arm made him sick.

People from church were very generous and very kind. They prayed for me. They brought food, flowers, books, sent cards, offered me rides and I was very, very grateful and very, very depressed. I never went out if I could avoid it and I learned to hide my arm as much as possible when I had to be out in public. Until one day while I was walking toward my Sunday School class, a very loving person stopped me and said, “Here, let me see that,” and he reached out and touched my arm and carried on a conversation as if I were a whole human being. He didn’t draw back, he didn’t throw up, he just lightly touched my arm and that’s the day I started to recover. All the prayers and sacrifices and kindnesses of this loving community had come together is a very special way in that moment. In that touch, I finally got the point. I was a citizen of the Kingdom and I hadn’t even known it.

God is in the business of interrupting status quo. Things are going to change. Whether you are going on a journey or a stranger comes to your town, there is going to be change. The Kingdom of God has come near whether you welcome the stranger or you let townspeople welcome you—whether you are the one who receives the message or the one who carries the message that God is with us and God is in charge, the message that something as ridiculous as a little baby born to an unlikely mother can change the world.

But it’s not the message that changes the world. It is God working through the harvest hands. It is you and me sent on the road to do God’s work. It is you and me welcoming the Word into our homes. We have God’s word on it.

Someday, there will be little left of me that won’t fit into a shoebox. And what I would like to see scribbled on that shoebox so that it gets to the right place is a little different from what the train conductor wrote years ago—little girl in Garner whose mother is librarian. I’d like the words to say something like this:

Child of God who traveled far from home, sent by love, and left some love behind.

And that’s the point I want to make.

We are all being sent BY love TO love.

Sometimes the Good News comes to us through messengers like it happened with Abraham and Sarah. We have to be able to be open to what we hear and act on it. Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

Sometimes we are the ones called to bear the message that the Kingdom of heaven has come very near. What’s that message again? A global war is exploding around us. The environment is being ripped up by the roots. Betrayal of trust can make you rich. And we are called to deliver the message that the Kingdom of heaven has come very near?

Yes. That’s pretty much it. That’s the message. We are called in a world where suffering often had a stranglehold on hope, to let our lives show that the Kingdom where God is in charge is close enough to taste. All we have to do is live like we are already there. Care for the sick and dying, touch those who are untouchable, help them get rid of what drives them crazy, be present for them when they weep, encourage them when they despair, feed them when they are hungry, find them shelter when they are lost.

And if each one of those things sounds like a full-time job, it is. It’s not a life-style; it’s a fully lived life. And we don’t have to do it alone. God calls many hands to the harvest and the communities we form, person to person, are important to the work. But even better than that, is the message engraved on our hearts—The one who sent us is always with us. God is with us, even now. The one who sent us is always with us".

Saturday, July 09, 2005

what do you believe about Jesus?

An amazing creed, written by Brian McLaren.

terrorism: a prayer

A prayer posted on the British Methodist Church website.

"In the face of terrorism

For those who are injured, maimed, traumatised and dying: We pray God’s peace;

For the rescue workers – police and fire officers, paramedics, and hospital staff: We pray God’s strength;

For the fellow-travellers stooping to comfort, soothe and tend the wounds: We pray God’s compassion;

For those who are dispirited, angry, despairing, and grieving: We pray God’s comfort;

For the leaders who are called to speak for and to nation or communities: We pray God’s wisdom;

For those who turn to violence to achieve their ends: We pray God’s forgiveness;

For our sisters and brothers of all faiths and of none: We pray God’s blessing;

For ourselves – numbed, fearful, morbidly fascinated or guiltily relieved: We pray God’s light in our lives.

As we hold before God those who suffer, we give thanks for every sign of the resilience of the human spirit and the determination not to be cowed by the cowards. We pray that all people may learn to live in peace and with mutual respect. May we not cease in our striving for justice and for an end to poverty, preventable disease and the destruction of the environment. May our eyes be fixed on Jesus, who bears and takes away the sin of the world, and in whom nothing can separate us from the love of God.


Jonathan Kerry 7th July 2005

Friday, July 08, 2005


Blessed are those who are traveling in the wrong direction;
God will lead them toward a new path.
Blessed are those who know they are "works in progress";
God will shape them into something beautiful.
Blessed are those who know they are "unclean";
God will cleanse them in living waters.
Blessed are those who know their limitations;
God's law will shape their thoughts and actions.
Blessed are those who lack wisdom;
God will unite their beliefs with the gift of faith.
Blessed are those who give up trying to be God;
Christ will ignite their service with love.
Blessed are those who feel God is distant;
the Spirit will infuse their lives with hope.


the society of saint andruw

Congratulations on being named nl player of the month.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

driving with my teenage daughter

This morning I sat in the passenger side of our modest chevrolet and rode with my younger teenage daughter from pretty far down in South Boulevard to Providence Church in Charlotte, which is a hike. We crossed Park and Sharon Roads, flowed with the morning drive-time traffic, turned the radio off, blended in with urban assault vehicles driven by caffeinated adults and octogenarians who could barely see above their dashboards.

I stereotype, but only a little.

Anyway, my younger daughter is becoming an autonomous automobile operator, she is getting the knack of it, and I am experiencing the excitement--yes, I would call it that-- with her. Quite a way to begin the day....

Afterward, the thought did occur to me: what if God relates in a similar way to us? We are given life, gifts, tools, talents to learn to use appropriately. We make mistakes, but we learn about them. Hopefully we don't hurt ourselves or other people too much along the way. God is there, praying that we don't mess it up, trying to get our attention, offering us guidance. At times we don't think we need God. At other times we know that we do.

And yes, at some point we are hoping that we will pass the test.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

646 pound fish

In honor of my older daughter Liz, who will be in Thailand on Thursday: the world's biggest catfish. See it here.

advancements in communication

You have to read this.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

is the sacrifice worth it?

I am not at the beach, although if you are reading this blog at the beach, I tip my hat to you. I am all in favor of reading at the beach, and the extension of the general principle, of course, is that the summer usually gives us more time to read. Why? Television is mostly re-runs, although the season premier of Monk is next Friday night on the USA network (see link to the right). People are scattered in different places, and church/community committees meet with less frequency. There are few high school or college sporting activities going on. There is professional baseball, but I have found that reading and watching a baseball game are actually pretty compatible activities.

I have had the opportunity to read in a few areas that are off the subject of my normal work, meaning, not necessarily for a sermon, or a staff policy dilemma, or a church decision. I usually read The New Yorker each week, and have done so for the last twenty-five years or so, since graduating from college. I often read "The Talk of the Town", and occasionally the fiction, and more often the poetry (especially if I am familiar with the author---recent issues have included poems by Donald Hall, Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney). I always try to read the non-fiction profiles. Since September 11, 2001, The New Yorker has included superb pieces on New York, Afghanistan, and Iraq, related to the aftermath of the attacks, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq.

A recent article by George Packer, entitled "The Home Front", is subtitled "A father asks why his son died in Iraq" (July 4, 2005). It is the most balanced, compassionate and intellectually nuanced writing I have encountered about the war, and the author, and the father, struggle with the question:
"Is the sacrifice worth it?" This, I think, was a part of my dismay with Donald Rumsfeld's nonchalant dismissal of the question about our army in Iraq ("You go to war with the military you have, not the military you wish you had"). This is behind my struggle with the fact that the majority of our elected leaders are not sending their sons or daughters to Iraq.

What does the sacrifice mean? This, to me, is a question that neither the political left nor right has had the courage to face. Packer argues that the war is in part about democracy, in part about oil, and in part about security. It is certainly not about religion; if it is, we are in the midst of the next crusade, billions of Christians at war with billions of Muslims. Even Bush administration officials deny this.

There is a temptation, when things go badly, especially when young men and women are dying in a war, to increase the volume of the marching band music, to denounce those who question as unpatriotic, to demonize the enemy. These are political strategies that avoid the hard question.

Meanwhile, the death count rises. The returning coffins cannot be photographed, and in our local newspaper, the deaths are likely to be reported in the middle of the first section, page 4 or 5, while the front page is likely to have news reports on Nascar or a missing child in Idaho or California or Aruba.

Here is the death count (U.S.):

December, 2003: 500 hundred deaths (March 1, 2003: "Mission accomplished")
September, 2004: 1000 deaths (May, 2004: Abu Graib; June, 2004: Handover to interim government)
Current Death Count: 1740

The present economic cost of the Iraq War is $180 Billion. At the war's beginning, there were serious arguments presented that the war would pay for itself.

On this holiday weekend, we remember the sacrifices of those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. My hesitance in writing this entry has everything to do with the sacrifices of those who have given their lives so that we might live in freedom.

Still, because the cost is so great, it is always essential that we ask the question, each time we go to war: is the sacrifice worth it?

I honor the men and women who see this question, who answer "yes", and who enlist in a war that is worthy of their sacrifice. I am in no position to judge their decision, and I am obligated to pray for them.

For everyone else, the unsettling question remains, to be answered in the years to come:

Is the sacrifice worth it?