Monday, November 28, 2005

an advent prayer

O God of creation and new creation,

We pray once again for your coming into the world,
We pray for renewal of life and reformation of mind and repentance of heart:
You are the potter, and our lives the clay in your hands
In your goodness and mercy we trust that you are making something new in us.

We pray this Advent season...

for the vision to see you,
for the insight to know you,
for the patience to hope in you,
for the trust to be shaped by you into a new people.

We are bold to pray for a world...

that knows its share of devastation,
shaken to its foundations by earthquakes and
tossed about by the chaos of floods,
we pray this morning: come, Lord Jesus.

We are bold to pray this morning for a culture...

that is inhospitable to children,
that ignores the poor,
that thirsts for violence,
that is saturated with materialism,
that throws away the preserved beauty of those who harvested this land
before us;

we pray this morning: come, Lord Jesus.

We are bold to pray this morning for a church...

for a church that depends upon its own power and wisdom,
that is more divided than united,
that is more internally focused than open to your commission
and commandment:

come, Lord Jesus.

We pray this morning...

especially for the sick and the grieving,
the lonely and the broken,
the doubting and the overwhelmed,
the last, the least and the lost:
come, Lord Jesus.

We acknowledge that there are prayers that reside deep within us...

for a new heaven and a new earth,
for reconciliation during this season,
for peace on earth and goodwill to all,
for desires that we cannot express
and wishes that we do not know how to list.

Hear our prayers, spoken and unspoken.

Let us be awake to the promise of the gospel.

Come, Lord Jesus,
that we might welcome you,
that we might adore you,
that we might be saved by you,

Friday, November 25, 2005

gratitude for the world

I am also grateful to God for...

1. Turkey and Dressing
2. ACC Basketball
3. Cool, sunny days
4. The songs of Jackson Browne
5. Naps on holiday afternoons
6. Brave men and women who protect the lives of others
7. Those who want to preserve the environment for future generations
8. Monk
9. Anderson's Restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue
10. The mountains of western North Carolina
11. Salsa's and Monterrey on Pineville-Matthews
12. Did I mention turkey and dressing?
13. National Public Radio
14. The goofy, crazy aspects of the Christmas season
15. Friends near and far
16. The New Yorker
17. The outdoor walking track at the Harris Y
18. The South Meck Basketball Program
19. Health
20. Sunset Beach
21. Good bookstores
22. The poetry of Billy Collins
23. The voice of Emmylou Harris
24. Merlefest (only 153 days!)
25. Streets in Charlotte that do not have speedbumps

In no particular order, in the awareness that yours might be a very different list.
But what would you include?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

to be grateful

"To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything he has given us---and he has given us everything...Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God."

Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

gratitude for the church

I am grateful to God for...

1. The hymn "Praise To The Lord, The Almighty"
2. The baptismal font and the communion table
3. The Nicene Creed
4. Congregations that house AA meetings
5. Psalm 100
6. Thiu Rancho, Cochabamba, Bolivia
7. People who tithe
8. Romans 8
9. Cap Haitien Methodist Church, Haiti
10. Congregations that house the homeless
11. Non-judgmental evangelicals
12. Eugene Peterson
13. The hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy", with the soprano descant
14. Liberals who love the Bible
15. Creation
16. The great majority of my seminary professors
17. Dayspring Retreat Center
18. The call to ordained ministry
19. Martin Luther King, Jr.
20. Forgiveness
21. Van Morrison's version of "Be Thou My Vision"
22. Daily Bread
23. Memories of singing "Just As I Am" as a child and "Pass It On" as a young person. Really.
24. Augustine's Confessions
25. The Hope of Eternal Life

My own brief listing of blessings I associate with the church, past and present, local and universal. A future list will touch on items related to life beyond the church.

What would you include?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

of the father's love begotten

One of my favorite hymn texts, and also one of my favorite musical settings, one that seems appropriate on this Christ The King Sunday:

Of the Father's Love begotten
ere the worlds began to be
he is Alpha and Omega
he the source, the ending he
of the things that are, that have been
and the future years shall see
evermore and evermore.

O ye heights of heaven adore him
angel hosts his praises sing
powers, dominions bow before him
and extol our God and King
let no tongue on earth be silent
every voice in concert ring
evermore and evermore.

Christ to thee with God the Father,
and O Holy Ghost to thee,
hymns and chant and high thanksgiving,
and unwearied praises be:
honor, glory and dominion,
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore. Amen.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

i see the promised land--the death of moses (deuteronomy 34)

We began telling the story of Moses in early July; now it is November. We began in the midst of summer vacations; now, the other night, I watched as they hung the Christmas wreaths in a shopping area three minutes from here. It is a long story, the life of Moses, it is the story of the Old Testament, just as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the story of the New Testament. This narrative which stretches across several biblical books, includes birth and burning bush, call from God and encounter with Pharoah, Passover and plagues and provisions in the desert, cloud and fire, commandments at Sinai, obedience and idolatry, triumph and frustration. It’s all there, in this story of the life of Moses.

One of the reasons we need to know about Moses is that his life parallels our own lives in so many ways. We have experiences of God. We make excuses. We are courageous. We are afraid. We do the right things. We get lost. We are on a journey. Sometimes we are on the mountaintop. Sometimes we are in the wilderness. Sometimes we know where we are going. At other times we don’t have a clue. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker, “Don’t follow me, I’m lost”? Well, that would be Moses.

And yet, Moses is the great figure in the Old Testament. At the end of the Torah, the heart of the Hebrew Scripture, there is the saying, in Deuteronomy 34. 10: there has not arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face”. Now we come, this morning, to the end of the story, to the death of Moses. It is not altogether what we would call a happy ending, but it is an ending filled with meaning and importance. Some of you families, gathered here on All Saints, have lived through such an ending. In the passage, Moses is given a panoramic view of the promised land. This had been his life’s goal. This had been the driving passion of his life, to lead his people to the land flowing with milk and honey, to reach the promised land. And so there is Moses, surveying it all.

I remember a few years ago, Pam and I were just beginning to try to get into the housing market. We have lived in parsonages most of our adult lives, but there is a problem there: when you retire, most churches don’t want you to live in one of the Sunday School classrooms! And so we would take our day off, Friday, and drive to different places, to look around: Ashe County, Hendersonville, Mount Airy, Lake Junaluska. A friend heard about this and he said, “I want you to see my mother’s place, I don’t know that she is ready to sell it, but I want you to see it”. And so he gave us the directions, and the keys to the homeplace. We drove up I-77, above Mount Airy, into Virginia, and turned right and east on the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Fancy Gap. We made a couple of other turns, pulled into the property, and got out of the car.

We looked around and caught our breath. It was an amazing view, perched up there, looking down across North Carolina. You could see Winston-Salem, and to the left Greensboro. To the west was Grandfather Mountain. The view was incredible. We couldn’t believe it! It turned out that our friend was right: his mother was not ready to sell it!

I imagine Moses, with God, at the end of a long life: “This is what I promised you, Moses. This is what I promised to give to Abraham and Sarah and their children and grandchildren. And then God says, “Moses, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news: I am going to let you see the promised land; the bad news: you will not cross over into it”.

The promise is within his sight, but not his grasp. In 1968, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King was preaching on this passage of scripture at a church in Memphis. He said, I’ve been to the mountaintop….Like anybody else I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…”.

The promise is within his sight, but not his grasp. In Hebrews 11, there is a family history of the faithful, those who listened for the voice of God and followed, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rahab, Samuel, David, Samson, Gideon, and Moses. And at the end there is a statement: All these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised” (11. 39).

There is an incompleteness to this life. After Moses sees the promised land, and learns that he will not cross over into it, he dies. As you might imagine, the death of Moses has provoked speculation over the centuries. What did it mean?

There is a wonderful story that the rabbis tell. Upon learning that he would not cross over into the promised land, Moses asked God for a favor. Moses asks, “Holy One, though I cannot enter the promised land as a human, would You allow me to fly over the land like a bird, or graze upon it like a cow? The Holy One replies, “no”. But the rabbis say that this must had been spoken with sadness, because God, along with the earth and heavens, wept when Moses finally died.

No one knows the place of his burial, the scripture tells us. This may have something to do with what comes next---a time of mourning, and then the introduction of Joshua. Moses lays his hands on Joshua, Moses had imparted a blessing to Joshua, Joshua us full of the spirit of wisdom, carrying on the work of Moses the prophet.

On All Saints we remember those who have died in the past year, just as it is important to remember Moses, but we also recognize that death is both an ending and a beginning. The end of the Torah hints that with a death there is also a birth, Moses laying his hands on Joshua, one generation blessing the next. One of the most important things we can do, at the end of our earthly lives, is to bless the next generation. The is the mysterious work of God, and we know it when we experience it.

And then, a final grace note about Moses: never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (10). Isaiah could not bear to see the vision of God in the temple, it was so overwhelming. “No one has ever seen God”, John writes. “Now we see in a mirror dimly”, Paul writes about our present human experience, “but when all the special gifts and powers come to an end, only faith, hope and love will remain; “now we see in a mirror dimly---then we shall see face to face”(1 Corinthians 13).

To see God as Moses saw God, to see the face of God, is to cross over into the promised land, it is to know as we are fully known, it is to gather with the saints, the saints of scripture and the saints whose lives have influenced our lives, it is to gather with the saints at the river that flows from the throne of God: these are the rich images from scripture that help us, when we are experiencing the incompleteness of life, when we see what we cannot grasp and long for what we do not possess. And yet we know that God has promised it to us. All Saints is about remembering the past, even as Holy Communion is recalling the command of the Lord, “do this in remembrance of me”. And yet All Saints is about a hope that is beyond our grasp but within our sight, it is about a great banquet that God will prepare for us. The journey of Moses to the promised land is your journey and my journey.

One of my favorite preachers is Reginald Mallett. A number of us heard him preach at Lake Junaluska this summer. He is a British Methodist minister and also a physician. I heard him tell of this experience, years ago now, which he had heard at a funeral given by an Irish minister at the death of his 38 year-old daughter. A part of the context is the bitter divide within Ireland itself.

“When I came to this city”, the Irish minister said,

“I discovered that it was divided

by the river that separated two groups of people.

On this side of the river we were protestants.

On the other side of the river, they were catholics.

And we on this side of the river had nothing to do

with those on the other side of the river.

And then God sent into our home a little girl

and as she grew up she went to school on the other side of the river.

She made friends with people on the other of the river.

She brought them home and we met them and we came to love them.

As she grew older she brought home a fine young man

who lived on the other side of the river.

They married, and they went to live on the other side of the river.

They had three children, our grand children, he said,

and they lived on the other side of the river.

In time I came to see that there was more of my heart

on the other side of the river

than there was on this side of the river.

The Irish minister said, referring to his deceased daughter,

now my little girl has done it again.

She has crossed another river and I have to tell you,

that my heart is no longer here.

It is on the other side of the river.

That is what this day is all about: All Saints.

I have reached the stage in this life,

and I dare say many of you are there,

where I have as many friends on the other side of the river

as I have on this side of the river.

Moses sees the promised land, and maybe, this morning, some of us do too, as we think about the saints in our lives. And maybe they have placed their hands upon us and blessed us and given us their wisdom, a vision they saw of this world and what it might be like, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr’s great sermon, “I See The Promised Land”, and the world to come is a vision that keeps us moving, bound for the promised land, maybe someone from your past, your own saint is saying, singing, to you,

I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land,

O who will come and go with me, I am bound for the promised land.

They are singing to us, and so maybe we say, maybe we sing, to them:

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,

Soon our pilgrimage will cease

Soon our happy hearts will quiver

with the melody of peace.

Yes we’ll gather at the river

the beautiful, beautiful river,

gather with the saints at the river

that flows from the throne of God.

Let us pray:

O God, life on this side of the river has everything to do

with life on the other side of the river.

Sometimes our souls cry out for a connection with the other side of the river.

Let us learn from those who have gone before us.

Let us follow in their steps.

Let us plant our feet firmly in this world,

Let us do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.

And let us look to the day when everything will be stripped away

and the plagues and wildernesses and mourning will be only memory,

and we will see You, face to face.

What a day of rejoicing that will be! Amen.

Sources: The Storyteller’s Companion: Exodus-Joshua, edited by Michael Williams; Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See The Promised Land”, a sermon preached at The Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ), Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968. Hymns: Shall We Gather At The River”, “I Am Bound For The Promised Land”.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

this american life

Last weekend I heard Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, speak at the Blumenthal Center in Charlotte. This American Life is a public radio program heard by approximately 1.6 million people each week. The content of the program is the personal story, or narrative. Their research tells them that the average person listens to This American Life for 48 minutes, which is pretty amazing. We are sometimes taught that people will not listen to the spoken word, or not for very long. Over 1000 people were present at the Blumenthal. My friend, Henry, who supervises volunteers at the Blumenthal, told me that it was a significantly younger crowd than they see at the opera or the symphony.

Ira Glass spoke about a number of things: the need for narrative, or action, and then for a moment of reflection on that narrative; the importance of surprise; the benefit of those telling the story enjoying themselves. He commented that we are bombarded with stories: ads, songs, news items, the internet, emails. And yet he made the case for a story that is longer than usual, where a person can get into the reality of what is happening. He urged us to move beyond the topic sentence. Politician a says this, here are the reasons why this is good, politician b says this, here are the reasons why this is bad, etc.

Most stories, he argued, have the feel of a cartoon: not very deep, not very long, not very thought-provoking or involving. He is interested in telling stories that draw the listener in. He also spoke about the need for humor, especially in bad situations, and noted that most of us can recall humor in just these times (a family funeral, for example).

I wanted to hear Ira Glass because I enjoy This American Life, and I have also found it to be important to hear really great communicators, to listen to what they are doing, to try to learn something from them. This American Life has three stories (or acts) in each episode, and the cumulative effect is that in listening to them, something emerges. A good sermon might be similar, and a good sermon at Advent/Christmas might be so as well. People will be bombarded with stories, and the further difficulty is that they think they have heard this story before, and they know it. I love Tom Long’s analogy of preaching during Advent as giving the pre-flight instructions to a bunch of people who have heard it before.

I also thought about Glass in terms of a topic a small group of pastors are meeting around, preaching and resistance. How do we preach about peace in a time of war, or war when liturgically we are lighting the candle of peace? How do we preach about hope in a time of floods, or how do we light the candle of hope when so many have so little hope. How do we bring these narratives into our sermons in ways that go beyond a “topic sentence”, which then leads to arguments pro and con, and the crossfire in which we are stuck?

This is our challenge and opportunity during Advent and Christmas, as preachers of good news. The good news of the birth of Jesus did come onto the scene as surprise. There is humor in it, if we dig deeply enough. There is narrative action (after all, we reenact it every year). Maybe our folks won’t listen for 48 minutes (!) but they will be there, with us, this season.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

who is in a position to condemn?

"What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us" (Romans 8. 31-33)

While I am not acquainted with all of the intricacies of the judicial council ruling about the pastor who refused membership to a gay man, I have read the ruling (at I am aware that characteristics within the case may have led to the verdict. I am saddened by this outcome (supporting the pastor), which seems to play into the stereotype that the church consists of the righteous, and the role of church leadership is to keep the unrighteous out. In fact, as Solzhenitsyn noted, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. The church is always an "earthen vesssel", the transcendent power belonging to God and not to us (2 Corinthians 4). I know the last two statements to be true about myself, and every church I have served. The decision seems to make this a "teachable moment".

Of course, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3). Of course, sexual brokenness is only one of the deadly sins (the others being greed, anger, envy, boredom, pride, etc.). Of course, if God should mark iniquities, who could stand? (Psalm 130). The implied answer: no one. Of course, we are never at our best when we seek judicial answers to human dilemmas. Of course, Jesus asked those without sin to cast the first stone (John 8).

I am convinced that we will only make our way forward if we can stay close to a few core convictions: our doctrine of grace (lest we lose touch with our tradition); the virtue of patience (the mother of all virtues); a posture of humility (all across the spectrum); a reminder that only Jesus Christ is the one in a position to condemn, and that God's ways are not our ways; an openness to James' admonition to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1. 19); a preference for the language of faith rather than political categories or terms that are inherently polarizing.

I am glad that I was received as a member of the church when I was not in a state of perfection, and I am gladdened even more in the good news that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5. 8). The very reality of our human imperfection and God's grace is at the heart of the mystery of salvation, and any possibility we have about becoming the body of Christ on this earth. I am comforted in the knowledge that the One who sits upon the throne intercedes for us.