Monday, February 27, 2006

to walk and not faint (isaiah 40)

The fortieth chapter marks a turning point in the great book of the Prophet Isaiah. The first thirty-nine chapters are filled with warnings, advice, critique, instruction, and judgment. There is the call of Isaiah, and the yearning for a Messiah. At times the word of the prophet is like a sharp edged sword: You have made a covenant with death, Isaiah says to the people; therefore there will be no wine, no singing. There will be punishment. Isaiah spoke to the southern kingdom of Israel. The north had already fallen to Assyria. The people in the south lived in relative complacency and security, and they said, to themselves: “we have Jerusalem…nothing can happen to us…God will watch over us.”

The students of Isaiah carried his prophecy forward, and in our chapter we have their word, God’s word, about what did indeed happen. Jerusalem fell. The temple was destroyed. The people were carried off to Babylon, in exile. Chapter Forty is a word to people who have already suffered the consequences of their actions.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins (40.2).

The people are weary and exhausted. The word of the prophet comes to encourage, and any encouragement must spring from who this God is and what this God is up to. Isaiah 40. 21-31, is to me, one of the most moving passages in the Bible. This scripture is often read in memorial services here at Providence. This is not accidental, but quite intentional. We think of those who are sitting in the congregation, especially those who are seated right down below the pulpit, a casket often placed in the middle, in front of the altar. This is not a time for warning, advice, critique, instruction, judgment, although I have been to my share of memorial services where those words somehow crept in there. This is also not a time for wine, for festive singing. The gathered, family and friends, have been through the exile of loss, lives created have ended, and the suffering is as raw as an exposed nerve. We are weary and exhausted.

The word of the prophet, twenty-six centuries old now, penetrates our suffering, our exhaustion, our weariness: Have you not known? Have you not heard? God is above us, awesome in power, beyond comparison. He brings princes and rulers to nothing. While we live for a brief time, he is before time and beyond time, the alpha and the omega.

And then the prophet asks: Look up at the sky? Who are you going to compare this God to? Everything that you see in the sky? These are not gods, like your captors think. The sun is not a god, the moon is not a god. Our God created these things. He brings them into the heavens and numbers them, and calls them good. God is above us, awesome in power, beyond comparison.

We have had a cultural debate over the past few months about something called “intelligent design”. I spent a lot of time in the lab sciences in college, and have always had a deep respect for people who labor in the sciences, and for the medicine that is undergirded by the research of scientists. I am not troubled by the idea of a God who creates all things (that is the mystery part), and I am also not troubled by the sequence of events that many might describe as evolution (that is the science part). I can appreciate both why it all happened and how it all happened.

Mostly I am grateful that it did all happen. I probably do lean more to the side of mystery, and as life goes on I am less troubled by the perplexity and more appreciative of the majesty of the ordered universe. I have stood on the edge of a mountain, or put my feet into the waters along the coast and had an experience that was not so different from the prophet’s:

Lift up your eyes to the heavens. Who created all of these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name, Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

The prophet, again and again, asks and answers the question that is probably somewhere in our minds. What is behind all of that order, all of that power, all of that majesty? But then the prophet goes deeper. Does this awesome God know us? Does this awesome God care about us? Have you not known? Have you not heard? It’s almost like a parent saying, “haven’t we gone over all of this before?” Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…He gives power and strength.

We older folks tire easily, that is understood, but even those in the prime of life will faint and be weary and fall exhausted….and then the climax, the majestic mountain peak of the prophecy that is Isaiah 40: Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.

Those who wait on the Lord. What does it mean to wait on the Lord? I imagine many of us, most of us are waiting for something to happen in our lives. I visited a friend in the hospital this week. She was waiting to go home! I met with couples yesterday morning, each waiting for the big day of their weddings! I talked with a young person in our church on Wednesday evening, waiting to hear about a college acceptance. And a woman two weeks ago, at church, stopped by to say that she was waiting to hear about a job interview.

We wait for many different reasons. Some are waiting to learn about a medical test result. Some are waiting for a prodigal child to come home. Some are waiting for a different season in life. And maybe…some are waiting for this sermon to end!

We know about waiting. I remember times of waiting in my own life. Waiting to hear if I had made the basketball team. Waiting to find out if I had been accepted into college or seminary. Waiting to get married. Waiting for the birth of our first child. I remember times of waiting, knowing that I would be coming to a pastoral assignment in Greensboro or Winston-Salem or Charlotte. You might be recalling a time of waiting in your own life.

To wait on the Lord is a particular kind of waiting. Some translations of the Bible have the word as hope. Those who hope in the Lord. It is a kind of hopeful waiting, an expectant waiting, not a passive resignation, not as the song had it, “whatever will be, will be”. One of the clearest New Testament echoes of this passage is found in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Do you remember Matthew 7.7: Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will. Knock and the door will be opened for you.

The literal meaning of this teaching of Jesus is to keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. What does it mean to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking? Sometimes we can learn from the saints who have gone before us. I came across this diary entry of a man named George Muller, who was a missionary, philanthropist and translator of the Bible. He writes:

In November 1844, I began to pray for the conversion of five individuals. I prayed every day without a single intermission, whether sick or in health, on the land, on the sea, and whatever the pressure of my engagements might be. Eighteen months elapsed before the first of the five was converted. I thanked God and prayed on for the others. Five years elapsed and then the second was converted. I thanked God for the second and prayed on for the other three. Day by day, I continued to pray for them, and six years passed before the third was converted. I thanked God for the three, and went on praying for the other two. These two remain unconverted.

George Muller prayed for these two for thirty-six more years. They were sons of one of his close friends, and they still had not become Christians. In that year he wrote again in his diary, “they are not converted yet, but they will be.” In 1897, fifty-two years after Muller had begun to pray for them daily, they were finally converted, but after Muller had died! (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation With God)

Jesus says, keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. That is what it means to wait on the Lord. And when we wait on the Lord, there is a promise: Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. We will take on the character of God, who keeps on asking about us, who keeps on seeking after us, who keeps on knocking on our doors, calling us into a companionship with Christ and a vocation in the world.

The knowledge of God helps us to keep going. When you have lost everything, only the knowledge of God helps you to keep going. When you have witnessed the death of someone you love, only the knowledge of God helps you to keep going. When you have given all that you can give, and you are bone weary, only the knowledge of God will help you to keep going.

That is hoping in the Lord. And somehow, when we wait, with hope, God shows up, and God undergirds us, like the wind beneath our wings. Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint.

I don’t often recommend books to people who are in the midst of crisis. The Psalms are there, of course. Most self-help literature is actually pretty bad. But there is a small classic that, if asked, I mention to people. It is entitled The Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, and was written in 1974. I heard the author, John Claypool, speak to student conference when I was in college. Claypool himself died this past year. The book was occasioned by the illness---leukemia—and death of his daughter Laura Lue, a second grader who played the violin and danced in ballet recitals. It is a brief but powerful book, a collection of four messages: one from Romans 8—nothing can separate us from the love of God, entitled “The Basis of our Hope”; one based on the story of the call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, entitled “Life is a Gift”; one based on the book of Job, entitled “Learning How To Handle Grief”, and one based on this scripture, Isaiah 40, entitled “Strength Not To Faint”.

After a nine-month remission, Claypool’s daughter had experienced a relapse on Easter morning. He reflects on the last verse, verse 31, of our scripture.

To mount up with wings like eagles is the ecstasy of the Christian life. The exuberance, the joy, the soaring. It is the chancel choir singing the descant to “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

To run and not be weary is the activity of the Christian life. Staying with the good works that help others, and, a by-product, that feed and nourish us. It is the day of service, in a couple of weeks now.

But finally, to walk and not faint. In his book, Claypool wonders about the sequence of this last verse in Isaiah 40. Why doesn’t it begin with walking, and then move to running, and then climax with flying with the eagles? Isn’t this the way we usually think about life, about progress, about moving forward?

Maybe so, but there is something true about the reverse, and there is wisdom in the way the prophet says it. There are times when we take flight with the eagles---there is a place for ecstasy and exuberance. And there are times when we run without weariness---there is a place for activity and achievement.

But sometimes it is enough to walk, and not faint. And when we walk, we see the tracks of a fellow struggler, the God who journeys beside us, who carries the cross, who raises us into a new life, and we know that we are not alone! To walk and not faint. Sometimes it is a miracle to keep walking, it is a testimony, to ourselves and to others, that we are not ultimately broken, but that we are being healed, we are coming home, we are living by hope.

Friday, February 24, 2006

curling, softball and global warming

I know that I have led a somewhat sheltered existence across these 48 years, but I had never been exposed to "curling" until the winter olympics this year. My wife says that it is like shuffleboard on ice. My younger daughter and I are trying to figure out if the people who skate along and scratch the ice are slowing the puck (is it a puck?---this is a rhetorical question---don't answer please) or speeding it up. Maybe it's just a way to involve more people in what would otherwise be a pretty solitary endeavor. Curling must be an supreme example of the human ability to adapt to his or her environment. If you live in really cold, icy weather, you invent a sport that requires two things: a disc-like object and concentric circles. Of course, with global warming, there may be fewer venues in which to practice the art of curling, but that is another story.

On the other hand, I cannot believe that softball has been ruled out as an olympic sport. But then I grew up in a softball culture, and most every church I have ever served has had a softball team (I can't remember whether my friend Stanley Hauerwas approves of this or not...I know somewhere he has commented on softball). The ruling may have something to do with how the world feels about the U.S. at this moment in history (we are not in anyone's favor), but it is a shame.

So, more curling, less softball. Although, with the global warming that is affecting out planet's weather, there is a brighter future in softball.

Think about it, while you are watching curling.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

pray for upper room editor

Please be in prayer for Dr. T. Lunkim, one of the Upper Room editors in India. Dr. Lunkim was kidnapped four weeks ago in northeast India by a terrorist group. My friend, Stephen Bryant, World Editor of The Upper Room, makes the following appeal.

"I call upon Christians and churches everywhere, especially those who are part of the worldwide prayer fellowship of Upper Room readers, to join us in prayer for the release of Dr. T. Lunkim, one of our Upper Room editors in India.

Dr. T. Lunkim is an Upper Room editor who was kidnapped four weeks ago by a terrorist group called the Kuki Liberation Army. He is a prominent Christian leader in northeast India where Christians are a small minority in the mostly Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim region. Dr. Lunkim has partnered with us since the late 1970’s to develop and distribute The Upper Room devotional guide among his people in the Kuki, Meitei, Vaiphei, and Zomi languages. The Upper Room has a total of 14 indigenous language editions in India including English.

Dr. Lunkim and I visited face to face only three months ago about the ministry he leads and how he has lived with threats and danger ever since Christ called him. His own son was kidnapped by the same terrorist group in 2003 and was later released. He has persevered in the ministry by the grace of God and with unflagging passion for his people nonetheless.

In addition to leading The Upper Room ministry, Dr. Lunkim oversees 500 area churches and a large amount of evangelical and benevolent work among his native Kuki people. He is one of 45 foreign language editors around the world, some of whom work in extremely challenging circumstances, developing and distributing editions of The Upper Room that reach into more than 100 countries.

Since it is now the fourth week since Dr. Lunkim was kidnapped, the staff of The Upper Room are becoming increasingly concerned. That's why we are asking individuals, families, and churches connected with The Upper Room fellowship, and others who feel called to participate, to join us in a vigil of prayer on behalf of Dr. Lunkim and his family, including his daughter Eva and her husband in Pensacola, FL.

Thank you for your prayers".

Stephen D. Bryant

Monday, February 20, 2006

thomas merton on writing

"The work of writing can be for me, or very close to, the simple job of being; by creative reflection and awareness to help life itself live in me, to give its esse an existant, or to find place, rather, in esse by action, intelligence and love. For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, or to confess, or to appeal. This testimony of love remains necessary. Not to reassure myself tha I am ("I write therefore I am"), but simply to pay my debt to life, to the world, to other men and women. To speak out with an open heart and say what seems to me to have meaning. The bad writing I have done has been all authoritarian, the declaration of musts, and the announcement of punishments. Bad because it implies a lack of love, good insofar as there may yet have been some love in it. The best stuff has been more straight confession and witness".

April 14, 1966

Saturday, February 18, 2006

dick cheney, curling, democracy, haiti

It has been an unusual week in the news cycle, beginning roughly seven days ago with the small note that Dick Cheney had shot a fellow hunter somewhere in Texas. An accident. The story laid low for a few hours, and then it began to gain some traction, as they say, because of the delay between the incident and the reporting of it via the national news media. The national press was offended that they were either bypassed or snubbed; in effect, that they were marginalized. This became a simmering stew for a day or two, spiced somewhat by the hunting victim's ( a millionaire lobbyist/attorney friend of the vice-president) experience of a minor heart attack. The comedians piled on, as did the political cartoonists, and, to be honest, some of the responses were pretty funny. Finally, the vice-president consented to a public interview on Fox TV (friendly territory) and took a few swings at conversational softballs. The subtexts in all of it had to do with many, more important issues that seem to avoid media attention or knowledge, such as energy policy, or torture (new photographs of abu graib were released this week in the larger world, as headlined on the bbc), or the treatment of enemies. These issues, after the week of obsession with the hunting accident, are still with us, and will affect us for some time---the relation of energy policy to gasoline prices and to our relationships in the middle east; the matter of torture and the harm that it does to the victims, to those who carry out the torture, and to our national sense of possessing a higher moral ground; and the very serious matter of civil liberties, liberties at the heart of the freedoms our country so prizes.

I have seen very little of the Olympics, but isn't curling the most unusual sport you have ever seen? And can you make any sense of a decision-making process that would include curling but exclude softball?

It seems to be dawning on the political leaders and commentators of the west that a polity based upon spreading democracy around the world may issue in outcomes like the ascendancy of Hamas, and the present leader in Iraq, and a potential Shiitie theocracy in Iraq. These democracies might indeed perceive life, the value of life, the rights of women, the freedom of he individual, the place of religion, and the events of recent history in ways that are incomprehensible to us. Is democracy a sufficiently virtuous value, or does it need to be complemented by something else: human dignity, or non-violence, or human rights---virtues that protect the marginalized, for whom we often want to be the advocate.

I am in prayer for the people of Haiti, and praying in particular that Preval will be led to be in advocate for the large numbers of desperately poor there, and that policies will be created that lead to the emergence of work for the Haitians. Yes, I know that I am praying for a miracle!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

sunday evening

Sunday evenings in the parish are a time to think about what has happened, on a day when the whole community gathers together, and then to anticipate that it all begins again tomorrow. This morning was a good one. I had missed the previous Sunday, due to an experience of nausea, originating from a virus, that led to dehydration (one of the other pumc pastor's sons said that I must have a big tank to fill---for those in the blogosphere, I am six feet, seven inches tall). And so there were a number of well wishes, words of welcome, questions about how I was feeling, and a couple of folks who told me that I did not look so well! But the sermon, which I will post soon, went well, based on one of my favorite lections, Isaiah 40. 21-31. I am a week behind in the lectionary, but this one was too good to miss, and it will not reappear for three years.

In a congregation like ours there are lots of subcurrents on a typical Sunday morning, but I am convinced that ours is more fascinating than most: a group of developmentally disabled guys, who compose a wonderful Sunday School class (blog readers from Nashville will be interested to know that their leaders are Russ and Ruth Montfort, formerly of West End UMC there, across from Vanderbilt); a wheelchair-bound young woman who lights up a room with her smile; a group of inquiring members who meet in the small parlor; the two different choirs; a couple of adult Sunday School classes resemble medium size churches in attendance, program and outreach; the senior highs, who returned from a skiing trip in West Virginia; a lunch following the services with an intergenerational Sunday School class, the traditonal potluck at its best; a girl scout cookie table; a couple of grandparents, watching their grandchild while the parents are snowed in up in New York City; and there are smaller, more personal dramas as well. A local congregation, gathered for worship and lots of other reasons, is a dynamic environment, one that I have come to appreciate.

Oddly enough, all week I read church literature that teaches me about the young adult abandonment of liturgical worship. And then, week in and week out, I meet large numbers of young adults on Sundays. Today the children's rooms were crowded. Again we gave thanks for the birth of a child, as we do most Sundays. I am learning to trust what I see and experience, and to place less confidence in the material that I sometimes read. There is a future for worship that is spirited and structured. This is an internal conversation that I sometimes have with myself. On Sunday evenings I am usually grateful for the diversity of ages among those who gather for worship at Providence.

Tomorrow's preparation for a new Sunday begins anew. Of course the texts are chosen, and some of the worship planning has happened. We are moving through the Sundays after the Epiphany, the following Sunday being the Transfiguration, and then we are in Lent. But the sermon is, to be honest, mostly a blank slate. I have read the passage (Mark 2) a couple of times, but I have never preached on it (there is nothing, as preachers often say, in the barrel). I have an idea or two, and the hope is that it will connect, and deepen, and make sense as the week comes along. We'll see.

It is an odd line of work, to spend all week looking toward this gathering, to complete the task, to write and deliver the sermon, and then to begin all over again. Most of the folks will be there again next week, although some will be ill, others will be traveling, still others will be prevented from being present. And yet it will be Sunday, the Lord's Day. For that, I will be grateful, once again. My hope is that at that time I will have something worth sharing. For that I will trust in God, and leave to another day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

bono's prayer breakfast speech

BONO's remarks, from the 54th National Prayer Breakfast at the Hilton Washington Hotel last week. This is worth a slow and prayerful reading. kc

"Thank you.

Mr. President, First Lady, King Abdullah, Other heads of State, Members of Congress, distinguished guests…Please join me in praying that I don’t say something we’ll all regret.

That was for the FCC. If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I. I’m certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is leather. It’s certainly not because I’m a rock star. Which leaves one possible explanation: I’m here because I’ve got a messianic complex. Yes, it’s true. And for anyone who knows me, it’s hardly a revelation. Well, I’m the first to admit that there’s something unnatural… something unseemly… about rock stars mounting the pulpit and preaching at presidents, and then disappearing to their villas in the South of France. Talk about a fish out of water. It was weird enough when Jesse Helms showed up at a U2 concert… but this is really weird, isn’t it? You know, one of the things I love about this country is its separation of church and state. Although I have to say: in inviting me here, both church and state have been separated from something else completely: their mind.

Mr. President, are you sure about this? It’s very humbling and I will try to keep my homily brief. But be warned—I’m Irish. I’d like to talk about the laws of man, here in this city where those laws are written. And I’d like to talk about higher laws. It would be great to assume that the one serves the other; that the laws of man serve these higher laws… but of course, they don’t always. And I presume that, in a sense, is why you’re here. I presume the reason for this gathering is that all of us here—Muslims, Jews, Christians—all are searching our souls for how to better serve our family, our community, our nation, our God. I know I am. Searching, I mean. And that, I suppose, is what led me here, too.

Yes, it’s odd, having a rock star here—but maybe it’s odder for me than for you. You see, I avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle line. Where the line between church and state was… well, a little blurry, and hard to see. I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays… and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God. For me, at least, it got in the way. Seeing what religious people, in the name of God, did to my native land… and in this country, seeing God’s second-hand car salesmen on the cable TV channels, offering indulgences for cash… in fact, all over the world, seeing the self-righteousness roll down like a mighty stream from certain corners of the religious establishment… I must confess, I changed the channel. I wanted my MTV. Even though I was a believer. Perhaps because I was a believer. I was cynical… not about God, but about God’s politics.

Then, in 1997, a couple of eccentric, septuagenarian British Christians went and ruined my shtick—my reproachfulness. They did it by describing the Millennium, the year 2000, as a Jubilee year, as an opportunity to cancel the chronic debts of the world’s poorest people. They had the audacity to renew the Lord’s call—and were joined by Pope John Paul II, who, from an Irish half-Catholic’s point of view, may have had a more direct line to the Almighty.

‘Jubilee’—why ‘Jubilee’? What was this year of Jubilee, this year of our Lords favor? I’d always read the Scriptures, even the obscure stuff. There it was in Leviticus (25:35)…‘If your brother becomes poor,’ the Scriptures say, ‘and cannot maintain himself… you shall maintain him… You shall not lend him your money at interest, not give him your food for profit.’ It is such an important idea, Jubilee, that Jesus begins his ministry with this. Jesus is a young man, he’s met with the rabbis, impressed everyone, people are talking. The elders say, he’s a clever guy, this Jesus, but he hasn’t done much… yet. He hasn’t spoken in public before…When he does, is first words are from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ he says, ‘because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ And Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee. (Luke 4:18). What he was really talking about was an era of grace—and we’re still in it.

So fast-forward 2,000 years. That same thought, grace, was made incarnate—in a movement of all kinds of people. It wasn’t a bless-me club… it wasn’t a holy huddle. These religious guys were willing to get out in the streets, get their boots dirty, wave the placards, follow their convictions with actions… making it really hard for people like me to keep their distance. It was amazing. I almost started to like these church people. But then my cynicism got another helping hand. It was what Colin Powell, a five-star general, called the greatest W.M.D. of them all: a tiny little virus called A.I.D.S. And the religious community, in large part, missed it. The one’s that didn’t miss it could only see it as divine retribution for bad behaviour. Even on children… Even fastest growing group of HIV infections were married, faithful women. Aha, there they go again! I thought to myself Judgmentalism is back! But in truth, I was wrong again.

The church was slow but the church got busy on this the leprosy of our age. Love was on the move. Mercy was on the move. God was on the move. Moving people of all kinds to work with others they had never met, never would have cared to meet… Conservative church groups hanging out with spokesmen for the gay community, all singing off the same hymn sheet on AIDS… Soccer moms and quarterbacks… hip-hop stars and country stars… This is what happens when God gets on the move: crazy stuff happens! Popes were seen wearing sunglasses!Jesse Helms was seen with a ghetto blaster! Crazy stuff. Evidence of the spirit. It was breathtaking. Literally. It stopped the world in its tracks. When churches started demonstrating on debt, governments listened—and acted. When churches starting organising, petitioning, and even—that most unholy of acts today, God forbid, lobbying… on AIDS and global health, governments listened—and acted.

I’m here today in all humility to say: you changed minds; you changed policy; you changed the world. Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives. Check Judaism. Check Islam. Check pretty much anyone. I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill… I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff… maybe, maybe not… But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places”. It’s not a coincidence that in the Scriptures, poverty is mentioned more than 2,100 times. It’s not an accident. That’s a lot of air time, 2,100 mentions. [You know, the only time Christ is judgmental is on the subject of the poor.] ‘As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’ (Matthew 25:40).

As I say, good news to the poor. Here’s some good news for the President. After 9-11 we were told America would have no time for the World’s poor. America would be taken up with its own problems of safety. And it’s true these are dangerous times, but America has not drawn the blinds and double-locked the doors. In fact, you have double aid to Africa. You have tripled funding for global health. Mr. President, your emergency plan for AIDS relief and support for the Global Fund—you and Congress—have put 700,000 people onto life-saving anti-retroviral drugs and provided 8 million bed nets to protect children from malaria. Outstanding human achievements. Counterintuitive. Historic. Be very, very proud. But here’s the bad news. From charity to justice, the good news is yet to come. There’s is much more to do. There’s a gigantic chasm between the scale of the emergency and the scale of the response.

And finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice. Let me repeat that: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment. 6,500 Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about Justice and Equality. Because there's no way we can look at what’s happening in Africa and, if we're honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn’t accept it. Look at what happened in South East Asia with the Tsunami. 150, 000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, “mother nature”. In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe. It’s annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren’t they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain. You know, think of those Jewish sheep-herders going to meet the Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says, “Equal?” A preposterous idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say, “Yeah, ‘equal,’ that’s what it says here in this book. We’re all made in the image of God.” And eventually the Pharaoh says, “OK, I can accept that. I can accept the Jews—but not the blacks.” “Not the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way, man.” So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice.

We hear that call in the ONE Campaign, a growing movement of more than two million Americans… left and right together… united in the belief that where you live should no longer determine whether you live. We hear that call even more powerfully today, as we mourn the loss of Coretta Scott King—mother of a movement for equality, one that changed the world but is only just getting started. These issues are as alive as they ever were; they just change shape and cross the seas. Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market… that’s a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents… That’s a justice issue. Withholding life-saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents… that’s a justice issue. And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject. That’s why I say there’s the law of the land… and then there is a higher standard. There’s the law of the land, and we can hire experts to write them so they benefit us, so the laws say it’s OK to protect our agriculture but it’s not OK for African farmers to do the same, to earn a living? As the laws of man are written, that’s what they say. God will not accept that. Mine won’t, at least. Will yours? I close this morning on … very… thin… ice. This is a dangerous idea I’ve put on the table: my God vs. your God, their God vs. our God… vs. no God.

It is very easy, in these times, to see religion as a force for division rather than unity. And this is a town—Washington—that knows something of division. But the reason I am here, and the reason I keep coming back to Washington, is because this is a town that is proving it can come together on behalf of what the Scriptures call the least of these. This is not a Republican idea. It is not a Democratic idea. It is not even, with all due respect, an American idea. Nor it is unique to any one faith. Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Luke 6:30). Jesus says that, ‘Righteousness is this: that one should… give away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and the beggars and for the emancipation of the captives.’ The Koran says that (2.177) "Thus sayeth the Lord: ‘Bring the homeless poor into the house, when you see the naked, cover him, then your light will break out like the dawn and your recovery will speedily spring fourth, then your Lord will be your rear guard.’ The jewish scripture says that, Isaiah 58 again that is a powerful incentive: ‘The Lord will watch your back.’ Sounds like a good deal to me, right now. A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it… I have a family, please look after them… I have this crazy idea…And this wise man said: stop. He said, stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing—because it’s already blessed. Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing. And that is what He’s calling us to do.

I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to ten percent of the family budget. Well, how does that compare the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than one percent. Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America: I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing…. Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional one percent of the federal budget tithed to the poor. What is one percent? One percent is not merely a number on a balance sheet. One percent is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to you. One percent is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you. One percent is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to you. One percent is not redecorating presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This one percent is digging waterholes to provide clean water. One percent is a new partnership with Africa, not paternalism towards Africa, where increased assistance flows toward improved governance and initiatives with proven track records and away from boondoggles and white elephants of every description. America gives less than one percent now. Were asking for an extra one percent to change the world, to transform millions of lives—but not just that and I say this to the military men now – to transform the way that they see us. One percent is national security, enlightened economic self interest, and a better safer world rolled into one.

Sounds to me that in this town of deals and compromises, one percent is the best bargain around. These goals—clean water for all; school for every child; medicine for the afflicted, an end to extreme and senseless poverty—these are not just any goals; they are the Millennium Development goals, which this country supports. And they are more than that. They are the Beatitudes for a Globalised World. Now, I’m very lucky. I don’t have to sit on any budget committees. And I certainly don’t have to sit where you do, Mr. President. I don’t have to make the tough choices. But I can tell you this: To give one percent more is right. It’s smart. And it’s blessed. There is a continent—Africa—being consumed by flames. I truly believe that when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did—or did not to—to put the fire out in Africa.

History, like God, is watching what we do. Thank you. Thank you, America, and God bless you all".

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

introducing will

I had the joy this morning of introducing Bishop Will Willimon at a conference for United Methodist pastors in Greensboro. It was good to be at the church (Christ Church), where I served for six years. It is a wonderful place, and I have always loved the sanctuary. In introducing Will, I noted his election to the episcopacy, his leadership of 150,000 United Methodists and their 790 pastors in North Alabama, his service as Dean of The Duke Chapel and his teaching across twenty years in the Divinity School, his authorship of sixty books, which have sold in the millions, and his legendary reputation as a preacher. I acknowledged that many of his insights, experiences and convictions have found their way into our many of our sermons.

I also shared this experience. In 1981, twenty-five years ago, I was a student in Will's "Introduction To Christian Worship" class at Duke. At the time Will was serving Northside UMC in Greenville, South Carolina, and flying to Durham each Tuesday to teach two courses in worship at the Divinity School. I was fortunate to be in one of the two classes. After the conclusion of class one evening I asked Will how his church felt about him flying to Durham each week and teaching at Duke. I supposed inwardly I expected some kind of response related to the concept of teaching ministry, or connectionalism, or the link between school and church.

How did the congregation feel about it? Will responded, "Most churches don't know what their ministers do on Tuesdays!".

After the introduction Will preached. He was his usual profound, funny, theological, southern, irreverent and prophetic self. He gave a midrash about Nicodemus, from John 3, and the call of Jesus to church leaders to be born "from the top down", to be open to the pneuma, the spirit, that blows where it wills.

Twenty five years is a long time, between an off-hand comment after a seminary class and a few minutes to hear a sermon on a Tuesday morning.
The professor became a bishop. The seminary student became a pastor. The world along the way became more complex, more computerized, more secular, more religious. The future seems a little more unclear than it did at one time. And yet the important things remain: teachers, mentors, friendships, humor, the word, the wind, the necessity of rebirth, the call to hear the gospel and somehow to respond to it.

Monday, February 06, 2006

on the mend

I have missed contributing to the blogosphere these past days because of commitments within the church and beyond and an unexpected illness that I am recovering from. Thanks for your patience and for visiting the site. When there is nothing new posted, I hope you will listen to some of the inside and outside voices recommended here, read a few of the texts and visit some of the important places.

At the end of last weekend I went down to Myrtle Beach to lead a group of about 60 United Methodist pastors from the South Carolina Conference in a two day exploration of Wesley's spiritual practices. These are noted in my book, A Way of Life In The World (Abingdon). It was a fast and fun couple of days, relaxing in some ways and yet calling forth lots of energy and attention. I was impressed with the community that gathered there and with their leaders. The weather also permitted a couple of walks on the beach, and my wife and I found a little hole-in-the-wall for lunch in Marion, South Carolina on the way home that I would definitely seek out again!

On Wednesday I led a discussion of What's So Amazing About Grace? in the evening, and on Thursday morning I taught Disciple IV. After teaching I began to feel ill and this was my experience for the remainder of the day. I won't go into the details, but the day ended in the emergency room, and continued for a couple of days in the hospital, as I was connnected to an iv and took some heavy duty antibiotics. I came home Saturday afternoon, and made arrangements not to be in church on Sunday (which I deeply missed, but I knew also that I had nothing physically or spirituallty to share). I am back to normal physicallly, I think, but the energy level returns slowly. I have to choose to do the really important things. People are both welcoming me back and urging me to take it easy.

So, the unexpected hiatus comes in the midst of winter activity. To compound it all, our older daughter leaves for China tomorrow morning, for six months. She will study and do an internship there. We are excited for her, and we will miss her profoundly.

Not much theological wisdom here, just life as it passes along, the planned and unplanned, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Throw in the Super Bowl, a returning appetite, and getting to watch three hours of Taylor Branch on CSPAN's Book-TV. At the end of a long day I feel tired. Tomorrow I will feel better. Pray for my health and strength, for our daughter as she flies away for a time, and for our family as we let her go.