Saturday, January 28, 2006

living for the weekend

It is a good weekend so far. Both daughters are home, although our older daughter is off to Beijing in nine days. Good news, bad news. Exciting for her, and for us, in a derivative way, but we will miss her over the seven months. I ran errands, went grocery shopping, took a nap, listened to a recording in the car of a good friend's (Tony Robinson) sermon on "More Than Expected", from Princeton Seminary's youth ministry series (write them, the cds are free). Our younger daughter played basketball last night, which was fun. Her team is undefeated in their league, which is a good one. We made fettucine alfredo and pesto pasta afterward; that was good too. Then some of us watched Monk. The BBC had a long commentary on Kenneth Lay. I lamented all of those who lost their retirement savings, who will never now be able to retire. I remembered someone's remark about our lack of interest in the destructiveness of the Enron Scandal, as we are obsessed with other things, each for the moment. Lay goes on trial this week. Will the public be as interested in the investigation as they are about the unfolding events in the lives of Brad and Jennifer, or Nick and Jessica? Why is there no moral outrage when hardworking people suffer while someone like Kenneth Lay inhabits a world of luxury? What a bizarre world. I fell asleep.

This morning my wife and I went to a real out of the way to place to have breakfast. We like it. It is in a part of town that is becoming increasingly hispanic. We usually get there before the rush. They do the small things well at breakfast---they offer Splenda, rather than the saccarin knock-offs; they use real half and half, rather than the dairy product knock-offs; they have really good rye toast buttered, that doesn't taste like a piece of cardboard; the coffee is hot; the waitressses are on the scene, the smoking and non-smoking sections are clearly separated; it is fairly quiet. The sausage omelette is quite good. Afterwards I went to the office, finishing a couple of church projects, and then completing a couple of writing projects (the latter chasing down permissions and verifications that are due this weekend). Then I responded to a really good resource that a seminary friend had sent me. I had enjoyed reading it, and realized that if I don't acknowledge these sorts of things, people will get the wrong idea, and stop sending them. And it would be the wrong idea--not lack of interest, but simply a long list of other things that are constantly going on.

The office is usually quiet on Saturday mornings, except for this time of year, when the church basketball teams are playing. I like basketball as much as the next person, or even more, probably, but I have had an odd thought lately; if an anthropologist came to the United States, and knew nothing about our faith, he or she might assume that we do three things frequently: worship; eat; and bounce basketballs. I am trying to figure out what all of that means. Our weekend custodian was around. He is a great guy, very conscientious, very hard-working, and he speaks almost no English. There are therefore continuing miscommunications: rooms are not set up, or cleaned, and doors are left unlocked. But he works hard. I have been try to figure out what language he speaks, especially after being in Haiti, wondering if we can bring someone in to translate some basic things, to bridge the communication gap. This would be good for Eddie, and good for us, and it would be the right thing to do. As they say in the business world, it would be a "win-win".

In the afternoon I had the pleasure of officiating at a small family service outside at our columbarium. We stayed around for some time, afterward, telling stories. It was an honor to be there. Then my wife and I went for a walk. The temperature must have been sixty degrees today in Charlotte, absolutely beautiful. So nice, in fact, that I began to think about the Braves schedule. We walked outside at the local YMCA, which has a great track, and signs that clearly say "No Pets", but of course there was a family with a young child and their little dog. People do often assume that these sorts of signs are for other people, and that they are the exceptions. Later we made a simple dinner for our daughters and one of their friends. Then I watched the editor of the New Republic, whom I don't know but am quite impressed with, tear into Fred Barnes, the editor of the Weekly Standard, about his new book on the president. I know I am in the minority of those who watch Book-TV on the weekends, but I confess. It is true. Where else would this kind of conversation happen?

Now our cat, Panda, has entered the house again. My name for Panda is Cujo, although I am the only one in the family who calls him that. It has been a relaxed day, and tomorrow should be a fine morning. The youth lead the service. I sit in the balcony at this annual service, and am amazed, year in and year out, at what the youth absorb over the years, and how they express it. And of course I know this is not accidental. They are led, coached, mentored, directed. But I know, even now, that they are pondering those speeches, their messages to the gathered people of God, and I know that God will speak, as He always does. Tomorrow, I trust, will be no exception. I am looking forward to it.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Weather Report, That Remark You Made
Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like A Wheel
John Gorka, Blue Chalk
Keb Mo, More Than One Way Home
Taize, My Soul Is At Rest
Buddy Miller, Worry Too Much
Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
Van Morrison, Who Can I Turn To?
Arvo Part, Litany
Mary D. Williams, O, How I Love Jesus
Miles Davis, So What
Lucinda Williams, Jackson
Buddy Miller, There's A Higher Power
Allman Brothers Band, Blue Sky

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

an encounter with truth

A commentary I contributed last week to the United Methodist News Service. Read it here.

Monday, January 23, 2006

back from haiti

The eight days in Haiti zipped by, and yet they seemed like a lifetime. Each day, Monday-Friday, was very similar in structure. We would wake up--I would often wake up at around five, go down to the lobby, which looked out over the Altantic Ocean, and read. Coffee would be ready at about 6:30 a.m. Haitian coffee is really good. We would gather as a team for breakfast at about 7:00. Someone, usually Fred, a medical doctor from Glouocester, Virginia, would share something of a devotional nature. Then we would eat. The usual offerings were pancakes or french toast, some kind of sausage/meat -like substance, sometimes Creole spaghetti, toast, eggs. I would choose from among these, or go back to my room and make a peanut butter sandwich.

We would climb into the vehicles at about 7:45, drive through Cap Haitien, passing the children dressed in uniforms going to school, and the people starting their days, mostly hanging out, there being no real work to do, then the other side of Cap, passing through their version of the suburbs, then going through Plaine Du Nard, a small community notorious for voodoo, than crossing a river (small this year), then going through another community, Duty, then finally arriving in Tovar. Leaving at 7:45, we would arrive at 9:00 a.m. A one hour and fifteen minute drive, covering fifteen miles.

The Tovar Clinic is surrounded on one side by the Methodist Church and on another by the Methodist School. We would unpack and get our stations set up. I worked with Mary, a member of our church. My daughter Liz worked with Erin, a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Mary and I did vital signs for adults, Liz and Erin did them with children. Hundreds of people came through each day. Some of them were very sick, during the week I know that the clinic encountered persons with HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Anthrax, a Diabetes Glucose level of 450 (a young teenage girl). I had learned just enough Creole to interact with them, welcoming them, asking them to put the temperature probe under their tongues, thanking them, asking them to follow me to the scales, pointing them to their seats, giving them a blessing (bonne Diue benne du).

The exception to this pattern was the day Alice, Pat Wolff and I shared in the lunch with about 72 Haitian Methodist pastors. It was a feast, the pastors piling their plates high with white rice, brown rice, barbecued goat, chicken, salad, bread and butter, cake with chocolate syrup. I met the Haitian Methodist bishop again, and Dorseley, who is the Cap Haitien Circuit minister/superintendent (he has ten churches and five schools). Some had come eight and ten hours by car to be there. They all stayed at least two and half hours.

On Friday afternoon, two important memories have stayed with me. A little Haitian girl came and stood next to me for some time. The she climbed into my lap. She was maybe a year old. A flurry of adults had just passed through intake, so we were at a lull. She stayed there, on my lap, looking at me. Occasionally she would say something, but I could not understand her, nor could Anatole, my translator. I began to pay attention to her. Haiti is an incredibly poor country, and Tovar is in one of the poorer areas of Haiti. The little girl sat there, very content. I looked at her as I held her. I realized that she had on a pink flower dress, with white buckled shoes. I was reminded of the dresses our daughters wore for Easter when they were very small. Alice White, our leader, had told us that the patients often wore their nicest clothing to come to the clinic, and many of them came from long distances away. This was true. The dress was dirty, or at least dusty. The lunch break came. She stayed. I stayed. Finally I went quickly to get a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I returned, and there she was. I continued doing vital signs, and she stood, right next to me.

Later that afternoon, after the work was completed, we walked next door to the church, and shared Holy Communion. Bill White had designed the church, Haitians and members of First UMC, Arlington, Texas, where my friend David is the pastor, had built it. We had a big loaf of sliced bread and a glass of red wine. I said the words, Alice and I served each other, and then we served the team, Haitians and Americans. A lot of bread and wine were left over. I went out a side door and poured the wine onto the ground, knowing it had come from the earth and would return to the earth. I invited the team to take the leftover bread and distribute it to the children----there were maybe 75 children outside, waiting to see us depart, many at some stage of malnourishment. I broke my pieces of bread into smaller pieces, and gave it to the children and said, the body of Christ, broken for you. The children were swarming all around was chaotic, and they would take the bread and immediately swallow it. I remembered the teaching of Jesus, "let the children come, do not prevent them, for to them belongs the kingdom of God...".

We then climbed into the vehicles and rode back to Cap Haitien, again a very bumpy journey of one hour and fifteen minutes, but with lots to think about.

The next morning we rose early, again, and packed for the Cap Haitien airport. We eventually flew to Fort Lauderdale (2.5 hours), and then my daughter Liz and I caught an earlier flight to Charlotte, for which I was thankful. I am also grateful to God for the ongoing and unfinished ministry that we have shared over twenty-five years with the people of Haiti. I am grateful for the healing ministry of Christ. I am grateful for a time of rest that I know awaits me at some time over the next few days. I am also aware of my ongoing need to be a part of the lives of the Haitians, who are also created in the image of God, for whom Christ has died, who long for better lives for their children, whose cries the Lord hears, surely, and to whom deliverance will come, in the fullness of time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

what is life like in haiti?

We are at the mid-point of our eight days in Haiti. This seems to be a good time to describe what life is like here. Providence, the church I serve, established a ministry here approximately 25 years ago, especially through the inspiration and prodding of Bill and Alice White. Harley Dickson has recorded the story in a book which is available through Providence UMC. This long-term relationship of shared mission (there are as many Haitians working on the project as U.S. folks) has nurtured a deep level of trust, and has resulted in the alleviation of enormous suffering.

Has Haiti changed for the better? Politically, the answer would be no. Economically, the answer would be no. Environmentally, agriculturally, the answer would be no. Spiritually, who can say? The Methodist Church where I have preached each year was full, and the sanctuary is not small. In fact, this year they brought in chairs (this would be due this year to the pastors' gathering). That doesn't usually happen when I am back home!

What is Haiti like? The following grim statistics, from the Episcopal News Service (12 January 06):

$440 per capita income (annual)
20% rate of inflation
80% unemployed
55% rate of illiteracy
42% of children under five are malnourished
One medical doctor per 10,000 people
In 2005,18,000 new cases of HIV were recorded
170,000 people are infected with HIV
68,000 children have lost both parents to HIV

The Providence UMC Haiti Mission sponsors six weeks of medical clinics each year. The typical team is composed of at least half physicians, although there is much to do for those without medical skills. The mission also sustains a minimal clinic presence during the interim months. In the clinic files are roughly 25,000 persons seen, and of course many have been seen who are not recorded.

This week, the clinic has seen a boy with anthrax, a child with malaria, and a woman with HIV, among others. There is a need for an HIV clinic as a part of this mission; I will write more about this when I am home in the states.

Two amazing ministries have morphed from the PUMC Haiti Mission, testaments to the movement of God's spirit in ordinary lives: an orphanage and a peanut butter nutrition program (a link and be found to the latter on this blog). The orphanage houses 50+ children and educates 300+ children. Four were diagnosed with tuberculosis this week, and are being treated. The children are happy and safe; they were enjoying a huge and nutricious lunch, singing, playing soccer, hanging out with their friends. Living a normal childhood. The nutrition program makes available a composition of peanut butter, vitamins, etc., that will help a child to remain healthy. These are two concrete responses, one by a pediatrician from Charlottesville, the second by a pediatrician from St. Louis. Both were inspired and can be traced to the original vision of Bill and Alice.

Today I will have lunch with Alice and about seventy Haitian pastors, including Raphael, who is their Bishop equivalent. Since I speak a little french and even less creole, I will miss most of what is said, and I will speak to them through a translator. It will be an honor to be in their presence, and to know in a slight way the conditions in which they live and minister. I am also humbled by this long-term relationship between Providence and Haiti, happy that young adults are finding their way to be a part of it (there are two college students and two medical residents on the team), grateful that other ministries seem to be morphing out from it.

I am especially grateful to Providence for birthing this mission and allowing me to be here for a week (I fly back late Saturday night). Returning to a place like Haiti is always interesting; people never expect you to return, because they imagine so many other places you might be spending time, and they see the U.S. as a paradise, only two and a half hours but a world away, a world of their dreams. Why would a person not stay in paradise? Why would a person come to Haiti?

I am sometimes asked this question by folks back home. The answer is that there is a need, and a call, and living tradition here of healing and hope, in the name of Jesus, the source of all healing and the fulfillment of our hope. I am not naive about what we accomplish here; over the long haul it seems to make very little difference. And yet, in the moment, I have that glimpse of a mother, usually, who brings her child, who has come from a long distance, and I remember those who brought their own children to Jesus, not that I am Jesus, by any means, but the work is in his name, and it is as if they are saying, "only say the word, and my child will be healed".

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

tuesday afternoon in haiti

On Monday and Tuesday we worked at the health clinic at Tovar, which is an hour's journey by jeep from Cap Haitien. Our team of 16 (25+ counting translators and local staff) saw several hundred people in these two days. I was in the vital signs area. I would call the name of a person, greet them, take their temperature, blood pressure, pulse and then weigh them. I would say a few words in french along the way, try to smile at them, some were friendly, some sick, some scared. Then I would say "sheetah", which means "you may sit down" in creole, and then "merci", which is thank you in French. Mary also worked in vital signs, and my daughter Liz and another college student did vital signs for children. We kept at this pace solid until a lunch of a peanut butter sandwiche and cold water, and today also a half a tuna sandwich. Then back to vital signs.

Half of the meaning of all of this is the journey there and back. Yesterday a tire fell off our jeep. We discovered that it was only held on by three of the possible six lug nuts. We were in the middle of nowhere. As soon as we stepped out of the jeep a young guy came by and laid out about eight brightly colored paintings, the most memorable being the crucifiction of Christ with a UN soldier taking the place of the roman soldier. We found an extra lug nut and returned with four.

Today a different truck broke down and we were stuck in plane du nord, which is a notorious voodoo village (I remember Bernard telling me that I needed to preach against it). We caught a tap-tap, sort of like a pick-up truck crossed with a cab, and rode 45 minutes to Cap Haitien; the cost was one American dollar. There we ran into a former staff member, Eddy Joseph, who was a "tooth puller" on the medical teams. He gave us a ride in the back of his truck.

People I will remember from today: a little boy with anthrax; the kids I kicked the soccer ball with at the Orphanage, adjacent to the clinic; a young girl with diabetes (450 glucose level) who walked two miles to get there and gives herself insulin; the dedicated medical people; Alice White's amazing leadership; the joy and humor of the haitian translators; my daughter Liz holding really tiny children and weighing them; the quiet of the Tavar Methodist Church, built, interestingly, by the local Haitians and some people from First UMC in Arlington, Texas, where my friend David is pastor.

Dinner will be soon. We are all hungry. Tomorrow I have lunch with 70 Haitian Methodist pastors. More about all of this later.

Monday, January 16, 2006

sunday morning in haiti

We awoke on Sunday morning; it was beautiful, and then a rain shower came. We had breakfast as a team, with Fred, a physician from Virginia, giving a devotional. More creole spaghetti. Then we piled into trucks and and made our way to the Cap Haitien Methodist Church, near the center of the city (population 500,000). I had been invited to preach, although I would have been glad to listen and worship. I was met by Raphael Dissieu, who is the president and superintentent of the Methodist Church of Haiti. He asked me if I was a Bishop. I said no, a pastor. We talked about the service. I asked him about a couple of french pronunciations, and he asked me what I would preach about (Mark 1. 14-20). Then the service began. The sanctuary was filled with people of all ages. The service lasted one hour and a half and everyone seemed to be engaged in all of it. The service included some Methodist ministers gathered for a conference, two choirs (one older women), a baptism, a responsive reading, two offerings (one for the poor), and my sermon, translated by Rev. Dissieu. Afterwards we processed down the center aisle and we were greeted by the people. Many of them seemed to want to speak to Rev. Dissieu, and they were all very friendly. Our team was there, and it was like preaching to three distinct audiences: the church, the visiting pastors, and our team. I will post something of the sermon later.

In the afternoon, we hiked up to the Citadel, the eighth wonder of the world, and then returned to a birthday party for Bernard's sons William (ten) and Randy (3). More later.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

saturday night in haiti

It is Saturday night in Cap Haitien. Our team is here, 16 of us, mostly medical people, from various places: Wisconsin, St.Louis, Charlottesville, Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, San Antonio. We arrived today on Lynx airlines. I was seated upfront in the 20 passenger plane, when a man with a bad toothache asked me if I had anything to drink. I didn't. He then laid down in the center aisle of the plane, and asked for a roll of towels, which I gave him. One of the pilots came back (actually about three steps from where he was sitting) and said we would turn the plane around and go back to Fort Lauderdale. None of wanted this. Then Alice gave him some aspirin, someone else some water and he continued to lay in the middle of the airplane, until the pilot announced, in french, that we would land in 12 minutes. He got up and took his seat.

We were met at the small airport in Cap Haitien by some of the Haiti Mission staff who are haitiens and live here. I was especially looking for Bernard, who makes everything run here and there he was. We embraced and he said "you came back". There were also others whom I remembered. We made our way through customs---I had some pretty habit-forming cancer drugs in my suitcase, but it didn't seem to matter. We piled into the trucks (this is a place where there is actually a need for suvs) and drove through town to the Mont Joli, our hotel. We had brunch---a mix of eggs, haitian spaghetti with diced hot dogs in it, i think, pancakes, which i didn't eat, and some fruit which was very good.

Then I showered and took a nap.

I have been reading The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down, which is excellent.

Then we had a team meeting related mostly to medical care, some of which I comprehended. Then we had a good dinner. Tomorrow morning I preach at the Methodist Church. Prior to that I will see the children/senior adult feeding program that Providence helps to fund.

More later. Our hotel is wireless, but we didn't know that. And so I am typing on something that reminds me of an old 286. Those of you at mid-life will know what that means.

Take care; pray for our mission. We feel safe among the Haiti people and in the care of God.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

three prayers

I do not often write a note like this, but at times, when I step back, or begin to listen, a cluster of concerns begin to form, and I feel as if God is saying something to me. I ask you to pray today for three particular people and their families. Their stories say something about how our world is changing, and how interconnected we all are.

The first prayer would be for Matt. He is serving in a unit in Iraq that is in the very midst of some of the greatest danger. One of his closest friends was killed last week, and the service for his friend was back in the states. Matt's wife, Dani, attended the service. It is a reminder of the human cost of war, which those in the midst of the action pay for with their bodies, minds and spirits. Please keep Matt, Dani, and Matt's parents Steve and Debbie in your prayers. In particular I am amazed at the way Steve and Debbie are able to reach out to others even as they carry this daily concern within them. Steve is our lay leader (he was staff-parish chair when I arrived), and Debbie teaches in the weekday school. Pray for safety in Iraq and for peace of mind here in the states. Surround these people, here and there, with your daily prayers.

The second prayer would be for Lauren. Lauren is a young woman I met in Haiti last year, and she has been a frequent worshipper at Providence. After returning she felt led to go back to Haiti to work with a micro-credit organization that helps working people out of poverty by giving small loans connected to accountability groups. Lauren is a bright woman, who majored in french in college. She lives in Port-Au-Prince, which is at the epicenter of where the danger currently is in Haiti, and she has seen very close friends be kidnapped. I would ask that you pray for Lauren as she considers her next steps, and also for her father Bill, a dentist on the Haiti teams. This would be a prayer for Lauren's discernment. Also, Cap Haitien, where our mission is, is a great distance from PAP and we are assured that it is a safe place. The prayer and concern focus is PAP, not Cap Haitien.

The third prayer would be for Uzma. Uzma is my daughter Liz' best friend. She spent Christmas with us and attended our Christmas Eve service. Uzma and Liz met in AP classes in high school (Uzma was the valedictorian at Parkland High School in Winston-Salem), and they were both awarded scholarships to UNC Chapel Hill. Uzma's father died last night in surgery, in Cary, North Carolina. While, they are of the Islamic faith, I can honestly say that I have rarely met a more compassionate, loving and even Christ-like family. Liz has taken vacations with them, our two families have eaten meals together in Charlotte and Chapel Hill, Uzma has heard me preach a number of times, Liz has observed Ramadan with Uzma and Uzma has observed Lent with Liz. Uzma's father was in the computer repair business, and they had immigrated to the United States from Pakistan years ago under some duress. I am sure the family is not only in grief but also wondering about their economic future. Pam took Liz there last night to be with their family.

I am reminded that the world really is becoming a smaller place, as our lives are impacted by events and people in Iraq, Haiti and Pakistan. I am also aware of the amazing things that happen in the lives of young adults, how they encounter challenges and obstacles and how they are given gifts to overcome them. Your prayer right now might be one of those gifts.

A reading from Psalm 62. 5-8:

"For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us".

So today, I ask that you pray especially for Matt, Lauren and Uzma.

Monday, January 09, 2006

breaking water

The beginning of Mark's gospel tells the story of the baptism of Jesus, in the Jordan. It is one of the formative experiences of the Christian faith, stretching backward toward the creation, and the spirit moving over the face of the waters, and forward toward your baptism and mine.

The following image has been helpful to me in thinking about the meaning of baptism. Imagine a stone being thrown into the waters of a smooth pond. The stone breaks the surface of the water, and then begins to create a ripple effect, as the circles begin to expand outward.

The baptism of Jesus had this effect. As he stands in the waters, he stands with us and for us. As John offered baptism for the forgiveness of sin, the One who knew no sin takes our sin upon himself. He is not only God with us (Emmanuel) but God for us. This act, on our behalf, has a ripple effect in that it offers the possibility of our cleansing, our salvation, our rebirth.

As the water is broken by the stone upon its surface, something new, something important, something amazing is possible. There is, of course, another meaning associated with breaking water, and here I borrow the image from what is, for me, the best book I have ever read on youth ministry, The Godbearing Life, by Kenda Dean and Ron Foster.

Dean and Foster reflect on the meaning of birth in relation to four actions. Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about birth in the third chapter of John--you must be born again, you must be born from above, and Nicodemus misunderstood---he could not get beyond the literal. Jesus was speaking of both the physical and the spiritual, going back and forth, and as I talk I hope you will hear it in both ways.

When there is going to be a birth, the first action is to pack your bags. We get everything together for the trip to the hospital. We prepare. We figure out what we are going to need, what is essential. We pack our bags.

I remember the months leading up to the birth of our first daughter. We went to the Lamaze classes. We practiced breathing, although I think we had been doing it for a long time! We learned to squeeze a tennis ball. We talked about what would happen when the time came; I imagined driving into the hospital when the time would be at hand---we lived about thirty minutes away, and I thought about what we would need to prepare ahead of time.

For the Christian, preparation for new birth also includes an attention to what is needed, what is essential. Really it is pretty simple: at times we
will need to have our eyes closed, we will need to pray; at other times we will need to be nearsighted, paying attention to the scripture; and at other times
we will need to be farsighted, looking out at the world. Preparation for new birth has everything to do with prayer, reading the Bible and understanding the world in which we live. John the Baptist quoting the prophet Isaiah said, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Something important is about to happen. God will help us to discern the timing, if we listen in prayer. God will help us to discern the meaning, if we read the scriptures. God will help us to know our best action, if we understand the world in which we live. It was Karl Barth who said that a Christian goes through the world with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Sadly, in our world fewer people read the Bible and fewer people read the newspaper, but the point was clear: we prepare ourselves.

Second, after we have packed our bags, we name the pain. It gets more pronounced. Perhaps there have been nagging pains for months, or nausea, or discomfort, but now it is pain, unbearable pain. Something is happening.

This is true in the spiritual life as well. We go through this life and the pain becomes real, unavoidable. We can't pretend that everything is normal. Maybe it is the pain of guilt, or the question of meaning, or the reality of disappointment, or a sense of despair, or the absurdity of boredom, or the presence of fear, or the heaviness of fatigue. It hovers over us, like a cloud blocking the rays of the sun. It lives within us, like a knot in the pit of the stomach.

A couple of years ago I am in the doctor's office. I have a kidney stone. I had had one of these seven years ago, so I knew what was going on. Someone with a coat on comes into the room and asks, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being okay, 10 being terrible, how is the pain? I don't know. Is 1 like walking along a beach, drinking something really cold, and is 10 like having the skin peeled off of my head? The pain is just there.

For many people, the process of new birth, the decision to change, the acceptance of salvation does not come until there has been some preparation and also a deep experience of pain. Then it is a crisis. That is when we act.

Why did the people go out to see John the Baptist, to be baptized? Because of the pain that resided within them. I grew up in Georgia, and one of our contributions to the world has been the collected short-stories of Flannery O’Connor. She was a woman of fierce artistic vision and deep Christian faith. She died of lupus as a young adult. In her short story, “The River”, she paints a picture a preacher standing about ten feet out into a stream, with water up to his knees. He calls out to the people:

“Maybe I know why you come,”, he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t”.

Then he says,

“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river”, he said, “I never told nobody that”. He stopped and looked down at his knees.

He speaks of a river of life, composed of Jesus’ blood, a river in which a person can empty the pain of life, a river that flows toward the kingdom of Christ.

When we come to the waters of baptism we stand in the river of pain, in the river of life. The river of pain reminds us of the necessity of new birth, of which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. The river of pain is the coming alongside those who are in crisis, in grief, in trouble, in confusion. Pastors, lay caregivers, Stephen Ministers know what it is like to stand in this river of pain. And of course, this river of pain becomes a river of life: the breaking of water leads to new life, the giving of spiritual friendship and support creates an environment of new possibilities, as we stand in the healing stream.

The church, at its best, can be a place where people bring their pain.

Third, after we have packed our bags and after we have named the pain, we watch for the water to break. It is a natural process, although there are times when someone does it for us. For some it is very dramatic, for others not. But when the water breaks, there is no turning back. The new life is coming, ready or not.

When the surface of the water breaks, the ripple effects begin, the new life emerges. We are stretched. That is not a bad way to think about faith. My Christian life is not just about me. It is about me and my child, and our relationship, and his faith or her faith. My Christian life is not just about me and my child, it is about the other children in our church, and our relationship and their faith.

My Christian life is not just about my and my child and the children of our church, but it is about all the children of the world, do you remember that phrase from the song, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world”, my Christian life is about them too because the water has broken and the ripples are going outward.

Next Sunday morning, God willing, I will be preaching at the Methodist Church in Cap Haitien in northern Haiti. The ripple effects that began in the hearts of Providence people years ago has crossed those waters and touched the lives of those children. Someone had to pack their bags and get ready. Someone had to name the pain. And then someone had to trust that the water would break.

Fourth, we prepare for the catch. When we are born, we leave the womb and we enter into the world, yes, but actually into a family. We look around: who are these strange people? I have his eyes. I have her nose. That old fellow over there, he is bald and so am I. We are born into a family.

It is similar in baptism. We are baptized into the church. We are not baptized into a denomination, but we are baptized into the whole church, we are incorporated into the body, we are grafted into the family tree. That is where the life is, that is where the support is, that is where the grace is.

This morning you will be invited to come forward and to be reminded that you are baptized. Perhaps your faith was born because someone prepared the way---a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor, a preacher. Perhaps your faith was born when the pain became too real, too unavoidable, too crippling, and you had to leave it somewhere, in the river of life where Jesus stands, and where he promised to take it all away, if we would leave it there. Some of you will understand what this means.

And then maybe the water broke. Maybe your faith experience was dramatic. Maybe it was more like quiet assurance. But the water broke, and something new was born. You became a new creation. And then someone was there to catch you, to claim you, to hold you, to name you, to say, “you are a part of this family, you belong here”.

That is what it means to be baptized. That is what it means to be a Christian. Come to the waters, receive the grace of God, and hear the Voice saying, about you, too,

You are my child, my beloved, on you my favor rests”.


Sources: Flannery O' Connor, "The River", and especially the superb book by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

the bowls in hindsight and other more important matters

Just a note that I did predict Texas as the winner of the Rose Bowl and subsequently as the National Champions. Of course, I also had Georgia and Auburn as winners, but West Virginia and Wisconsin, their respective adversaries, were inspired and prepared. I will confess that I have a difficult time staying up until 2:00 a.m. in the morning to watch these bowl games, and even less patience for the endless commercials. Of course, this is an eastern standard time problem, but, nevertheless, I am rarely still with it when these games end. Otherwise I would be yawning through pre-marital sessions, finance meetings and hospital visits the next day, and this would not be good.

Our older daughter and her governor's school alum friends are in our mountain house this weekend. Pray for them all....and for the house...and for our neighbors there. Our younger daughter has a basketball game tomorrow night and a volleyball tournament this weekend. And Pam and I are recovering from the holidays, still, adjusting to a short week, and getting ready for a new year.

It was an honor to be profiled last week at the Locusts and Honey site (see the link under "inside voices"). Having entered a new year, I realize that i have completed two book projects and contributed to three others in 2005: one book is on baptism, and is due to be published by Abingdon in September; the second is on intercessory prayer and was just sent to the good people at the Upper Room last week; I think it appears in a year or so; a chapter is in print now in an Alban Institute book entitled From Nomads to Pilgrims, which is a response to the myth that the mainline church is dying; and I also contributed a few sermons to the
2007 Abingdon Preaching Annual and a study on spiritual gifts for The New Interpreter's Bible Study. These last two can be accessed through the Abingdon Press website, in the "texts' links. They are due to be in print in the spring.

I do not plan any comparable writing projects in the coming year, although I am committed to a couple of short assignments---a sermon for the Biblical Preaching Journal, and three sermons for the Abingdon Preaching Annual (could it be 2008?). It will be nice to read more and write less. Instead, it looks like a year with a little more travel--a mission soon to Haiti with church members and friends, a trip in the spring to China to see our daughter who will be there, a conference in the summer at Sedona in Arizona, sponsored by the Center for Theological Inquiry.

Currently I am at work on this Sunday's sermon, related to the Baptism of the Lord, and I am working with a wonderful image from Kenda Dean's The Godbearing Life, namely the experience of "breaking water", which, of course, is not a male experience, except as a close observer. But what she has to say about the process of birth and its relation to youth ministry and, by extension, to all of ministry and life, is profound.

Meanwhile, I am deeply saddened by the deaths of the miners in West Virginia. That state has known more than its share of oppression, degradation and tragedy, and the pain of the families is almost palpable. Surely God hears their cries and will come down to deliver them...

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

a door closes, another door opens

On the Sunday after Christmas we read the story of the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and the responses of Simeon and Anna. There is a great deal here, even if our appetite for all of it, after the spiritual indulgence of Christmas, may not be for too much.

And so a few comments: Mary and Joseph take the child to be circumcised, they come for the purification rites, they present the child to the Lord, they offer a sacrifice. The lessons are simple and clear: they were following in the traditions of their faith; they offered their gifts. And the implications for us are simple and clear as well: when we have been given something wonderful, we are called to be faithful.

As you enter into a new year, what has God placed in your hands, what is the wonderful gift in your own possession, how are you being called to be faithful?

Then the story shifts to Simeon. He is waiting for this moment, for the consolation of Israel, for the Messiah, he is filled with the Spirit. He understands that he will not die before the Messiah has been born. At a human level I have seen this many times: a grandparent or great-grandparent lives until the birth of a child. A door closes. A door opens. At times, here a Providence, a memorial service will be ending at just about the time that the weekday school children are coming from their classes, and to me that is great. A door closes. A door opens.

Simeon, the devoted servant of God, is departing this earth. But a child has been born. Now your servant can depart in peace, Simeon says to God, for my eyes have seen your salvation!

He is saying, in effect, “this is why I was born”. And that is worth reflecting on as well. How many of us can point to something, our children, our work, our priorities, and say, “this is what I was born”. Now you servant can depart in peace!

Simeon takes the child into his arm and praises God. And then he blesses the parents, Mary and Joseph----, they had wondered about what to do in an awkward situation, they had had dreams and visions, they had been given signs, they had pondered all of this in their hearts, they had received the gifts of the magi and welcomed the shepherds, and now it is nice to hear it all confirmed by this wise old man Simeon. He blesses them. The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed because of this child, he says to them, and a sword will pierce your own soul also.

The lessons are simple and clear here as well: again, Simeon knows enough about his faith and the traditions to know that the place something special, something God-given, will happen is the temple, and there he is; and he is open and transparent to the movement of the spirit to know his own purpose and destiny, and now that is being fulfilled. The implications for us are also simple and clear: we are called to be patient, to wait, to be hopeful, and God will fulfill the desires of our hearts.

The story shifts, next, to Anna, a prophet. She is also in the temple, praying, fasting, worshipping. She echoes what had been revealed to Simeon. They are in agreement. Something is happening here. When God begins to do something, there will be agreement, a shared faith that something amazing is happening. She has been hoping for a Messiah. Now the Messiah has come.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Now his parents will take him home, to the Galilee, to Nazareth. But on the way, there is this stop, at the temple, in Jerusalem.

We are on the first day of a new year. In our service today, two very important acts of worship take place. One is two thousand years old, and really its origins are 3000 years old. Another is two hundred and fifty years old. These are the traditions of our faith, these are the disciplines of our renewal, these are the means of grace for us.

The Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the way we remembered the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it was the way we experienced his real presence with us now, it was the way we looked forward to a great banquet that he would host. Why a meal? Well, we have come through holiday celebrations, perhaps we have eaten too much, but a part of the meaning is that we gather around tables and break the bread and tell the stories and give thanks. When we carry on the traditions, good things happen, just as they did for Simeon and Anna. The miraculous takes place. The light breaks through. “Do this in remembrance of me”, he says to his disciples.

The Covenant prayer is the other practice. The prayer that we said earlier has been said by Methodists for at least 250 years. It had a puritan origin in England prior to that. In the tradition the renewal of the covenant came to be called a “watch night service, held just before midnight of the new year, but I have spared us that.

The covenant prayer is one of deep faith and trust in God, of surrender to God's will, of abandonment to divine providence, in the words of a spiritual classic. We say these words and they almost echo the words of a much earlier time, words spoken in a garden, "not my will, but thy will", words that fufilled the prophecy of Simeon, "this child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own soul also".

If we did not have these faith traditions we would invent new ones, and, of course, we do invent new traditions: champagne, fireworks, the ball dropping, black eyed peas and collard greens, football bowl games. We need rituals, traditions, because they ground us, that put us in a place to experience something meaningful and beautiful and hopeful.

And so, we gather this morning, to say the prayers of our ancestors, and to break the bread, and to head into a new year. A door closes--2005, with the Tsunami and the death of the Pope and the war and the floods and the runaway bride and Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart and UNC winning the national championship, it is over, it is done, it is history. And now a door opens, and we wonder: what will happen over the next 12 months? More natural calamity? More extended warfare? more celebrity wierdness? Another North Carolina team winning the National Championship in basketball?

And in our own lives, we wonder as well? A door closes there too. Sometimes that is grace: Sins committed; courageous words left unspoken; generosity not yet extended; a failure on the part of another not yet forgiven; a talent not left undeveloped. We can make amends, we can fulfil resolutions, we can make a covenant with God, to experience newness of life. A door opens. It is a new year.

I have mentioned my fascination with this time of year, because it reminds me that we really do live by at least three calendars. There is the sports calendar. Some of us live from the opening day of spring training in baseball to the fall NFL season to the World Series to the college bowls to March Madness. Then we start all over again. Most of us also live by the national calendar, and, of course, we are at the beginning of that one, today is January 1. A third calendar is the liturgical calendar, which begins in Advent, with the birth of Jesus, and concludes at the end of next November, when he is enthroned and seated at the right hand of God, on Christ The King Sunday. It is a way of structuring time around the life of Jesus.

Today, two of those calendars overlap. A door closes, the calendar year 2005 is over, and there is Simeon, who has lived just long enough to see the new birth. A door opens, it is 2006, and the child born in Bethlehem will grow strong, full of wisdom, and God's grace will be upon him.

May it be so for us. May the birth of Jesus Christ be our own rebirth. May a year of resolutions find us resolved to renew our faith, and to be faithful in all that we have been given. May we walk into a new year, with our eyes wide open, filled with the Holy Spirit, to see the salvation that God has prepared in the sight of all nations, a light to the Gentiles, and glory for the chosen people, Israel.

When a door closes, another door opens.

(a sermon given at Providence UMC in Charlotte on January 1, 2006; the context was also the sacrament of holy communion and the covenant prayer in the Wesleyan tradition)