Saturday, March 25, 2006

flannery o'connor and other matters

Life has been busy lately, so the posts have been less frequent.
Thanks for checking in to see what is here. Today is the birthday of
Flannery O' Connor. You can find Garrison Keillor's homage to her
at the Writer's Almanac link on this blog.

Here is a portion:

"Flannery O'Connor [was] born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young girl
she was terribly
shy and prone to temper tantrums. She became famous in her
hometown when
she was five years old by teaching one of her chickens to walk
backward. A New York City reporter came and filmed the chicken for a newsreel.

She wanted either to be a writer or a cartoonist. During college, she
submitted her cartoons to The New Yorker, but she was rejected, so she
began to focus on her writing. She applied to one of the only creative
writing programs in the country at the time, the Iowa Writer's
Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions
interviewer couldn't understand her southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, people there didn't know
what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any
of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested
in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. During class, she almost
never spoke, and her classmates only knew she was listening by the way
she occasionally smiled when she thought something was funny.

But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed
everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her
first novel. She was still working on that novel when she began to
notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. Traveling home to
Georgia for Christmas that year, she grew so sick on the train that
she had to be hospitalized when she arrived. It turned out that she
had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and began receiving steroid treatments,
which made it difficult to walk without crutches. She said at the
time, "I walk like I have one foot in the gutter but it's not an
inconvenience and I get out of doing a great many things I don't want
to do." Even though the disease made her extremely tired, she forced
herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of
her mother's house. She wrote to her friend Robert Lowell, "I have
enough energy to write with and as that is all I have business doing
anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What
you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, (or so I tell

O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood came out in 1952. Three years later,
she published the story collection that made her name A Good Man Is
Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A
Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose
entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good
Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is
stolen by a Bible salesman.

O'Connor filled her stories with crazy preachers, murderers, the
deformed, the disabled, freaks and outcasts. An uncle once asked her
why she didn't write about nice folks. O'Connor focused on the
grotesque because she said, "To the hard of hearing you shout, and for
the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." She died a
little more than a week shy of her fortieth birthday".

Remembering Flannery O' Connor brought a number of connections to
the surface: Ralph Wood, my wife's professor at Wake Forest (now at Baylor),
introduced Pam and me to Flannery's short stories, especially "A Good
Man Is Hard To Find"; the first book my wife gave me, when we were still
dating, was a copy of The Habit of Being; O'Connor's short story "The River",
which has one of the most compelling baptism scenes in all of literature;
and her story "Parker's Back", which is a retelling of the crucifixion. And
I must mention "Revelation", a remarkable modern account of the last

There is more to say about O' Connor, but I would instead commend her
writings to you. She was a woman of deep Christian conviction and fierce
artistic vision. She was a master of the short story genre, which has always
seemed to me to be the best analogy to the sermon, in both length and in
what needs to happen, in terms of plot, from beginning to end. There was
always an epiphany, a revelation in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. Of
course, that would be a goal for my sermons too, but...


Lots more to comment on: two visits in the last month with groups of
one in Louisville (convened by Diana Butler Bass, and related to the
on Congregations of Intentional Practice), the second in Princeton
by Wallace Alston and related to the Center of Theological Inquiry).
to both initiatives can be found on this blog as well. I have completed a
manuscript on baptism, a brief book, my favorite kind, and also contributed
three sermons to the Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008 (!) and one to the
Biblical Preaching Journal. Two good friends and preachers, David Mosser
and Michael Mooty, edit these last two works, and they are among the best
resources for those who must get sermons together Sunday after Sunday.

I am also having fun teaching Life of The Beloved by Henri Nouwen.
I spent
a great deal of time with this book in the early 1990s, and came to
it in an
unusual way, via Mary and Gordon Cosby, which I will discuss at a
later time
also. I remembered a comment by David DeVries, a good friend,
that we
would benefit from reading a few classics in a continuous way,
rather than focusing
solely on new publications, and that comment inspired
me to go back to
Life of The Beloved.

It is a simple and compelling book--Nouwen likens the movements of the
spirit in
our lives to the words of the Eucharist: taken, blessed, broken
given. Many inProvidence are using it as their Lenten study. Tomorrow
morning I teach a number
of choir members, and will focus on the meaning
of "Holy Communion" for Nouwen
and for us. On Palm Sunday evening I will
preach on the word "broken". And on the
Wednesday of Holy Week, I will
lead a study of the word "given", in light of Nouwen's
concept of eternal life.


More still: the death of Buck Owens, today. Another sign that an era
has ended.Rejoicing that the Christian in Afghanistan will be released,
it seems. Morerejoicing that the three members of the Christian peacemaker
team were releasedlast week. The honor of officiating at the wedding of a
wonderful couple today. Gratitude that a capital campaign seems to be bearing
fruit, and enters now into the public phase.

Prayers for Don and Ramona Turman, missionaries toIndonesia, who visited
our church last week; Don supervised Pam and me in fieldeducation while we
were Duke Divinity Students, as we lived for the summer in Cherokee,
thanksgiving for their long life of faithful service. Prayers for a gentleman
in our church, near death, and for a couple, she also experiencing significant
health issues. And for members of our congregation on spring break with their
children, as they travel to Montana, various islands, New York City, Utah,
New England, and, of course, Disneyworld.

Friday, March 17, 2006

march madness

We are a blended family. My wife and I attended Duke Divinity School, our time roughly corresponding to Coach K's early years. In our second year at Duke I served as a campus minister intern at UNC Chapel Hill, only eight miles away. Their basketball team included Michael Jordan and James Worthy, among others, and they won the NCAA Championship that year (1982), defeating Georgetown in the finals. The following year, NC State won it all, their team being best remembered for their coach, the late Jim Valvano, who died of cancer a few years later. You could sense that Duke was on the ascent, however, as a freshman named Johnny Dawkins joined their team, and then Tommy Amaker, and then Danny Ferry, and then Christian Laettner, and then Bobby Hurley, and later Grant Hill. And on and on.

We became a blended family when our beloved older daughter, Liz, chose to enroll at UNC Chapel Hill, a decision that has been a wise one. I remember riding in a bus on parents weekend, fall a year ago, chatting with a couple from Atlanta, and saying, "our daughter really loves it here", and the woman responded, "what's not to love?". Which is true.

Well, last year UNC had a pretty good team, which is an understatement. Four of their players would later be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft; two of them would become Charlotte Bobcats (my younger daughter would run into one of them, Sean May, at the mall the day after Christmas). They indeed won the National Championship last year, defeating a very good Illinois team. This year the Duke-UNC series has been a split, Duke winning at Chapel Hill, and UNC coming into Cameron Indoor Stadium and defeating Duke on Senior Night, playing four freshmen.

Now we are in the first stages of this year's bracketology. Some of the local teams have played heroically but have lost: Davidson to Ohio State, Winthrop to Tennessee, UNCW to George Washington. And right now Murray State is giving this young UNC team a battle. The early rounds of March Madness are very interesting at times, although the established teams generally find a way to win. There are exceptions, of course (for example, Michigan State and Iowa have already been eliminated).

I suppose an act of Lenten self-denial would be to detach from March Madness. I wish all of this came along at a different time of year. But I confess to an addiction to the ups and downs of it all, even the endless beer and cellular phone commercials, and as the field narrows this year, I will be hoping that our blended family is represented by at least a couple of teams.

So, I do have Duke and UNC in the final four. No ideas about who will win it all. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

your flight has been cancelled

On Saturday I found myself early in the afternoon in the Nashville Airport, awaiting a flight home to Charlotte. I arrived in plenty of time for the connection, and watched UNC lose to Boston College in one of the restaurants. I soon learned that my flight, at 4:30 p.m., had been delayed. Why, I asked. There is fog in Charlotte. In the meantime, some of my friends had reservations on the 6:30 flight, also to Charlotte. In time it arrived, and departed. No comment from the airline staff. Then the Philadelphia flight arrived, and departed. Again no comment from the airline staff, who were deeply involved with their computers but oblivious to the people. 6:30 p.m. came, 7:00 came. I asked the young guy standing there if he could let us know what was happening. The airplane is on the way, he told us. But I could talk with the supervisor.

I found her at another station, where she could also interract with her computer, although by now there were very few flights and almost no one in the airport. I asked about a provision for a meal. Oh, they didn't give you a meal voucher? They should have. She printed one out, but by now all of the restaurants in the airport were closed for the evening. There is a candy machine, one of the helpful security folks told me.

I asked the supervisor if there was anything she wanted to tell me about the 4:30 flight. She looked at me as if I had asked an unexpectedly unusual question, as if I had inquired about a Faulkner novel or human genome research. By now it is after 7:00 p.m. I had hoped to be back in Charlotte to have a (late) dinner with my wife, but this was not going to happen. She called Charlotte. The plane had not left the airport. There was no crew. A few minutes later the flight was cancelled.

Why, I asked. Had the later flight made it through whatever fog existed? She couldn't say. She placed me, as a backup, on the 6:00 a.m. flight the next day. Remember, I am a minister, so a Sunday morning flight is not a good thing. I explained this to her. You'll make it for the early service, she said, matter of factly.

I returned to my gate, where I met the other silent partner/employee. I went up to her. I was the only one there. Can I help you?, she asked. It was as if we had never met, although by now we are old acquaintances. It had been a long day. Yes, I responded. I am on the 4:30 flight. That has been cancelled, she said, as if this might complete our discussion. When I did not leave, she asked a question: Did I have a place to stay that night? No, I replied, I don't live here. She began interracting with her computer again, complaining that it was doing strange things that day. She put me on the morning flight, and then made a call to someone, which turned out to be a reservation at a Comfort Inn or Best Western, she could not remember which. It is one of those, she said. Just look for the van near baggage claim. I realized that she was probably functioning as well as she could. She put her hand on her neck, as if she were checking her pulse. My flight would be at 6:00 the next morning. The hotel had a shuttle beginning at 5:00.

I did fantasize, in an odd moment, about how different life might be if our president had come from the airline industry rather than the oil business. Maybe the airlines might not all be going bankrupt, perhaps they might be making record profits and putting some of that money into the airline business itself, maybe actually flying the planes that are scheduled. And maybe the oil companies might be on the verge of bankruptcy. Then I awakened from this odd fantasy.

So, I wrote down Comfort Inn or Best Western on a sheet of paper, and walked to baggage claim. There in the office of the airline (I am trying to avoid mentioning it's name) was my bag. Of the four employees I had encountered in my five hours at the airport that day, the woman at the baggage office was the most surly. Maybe she had passed a personality test that qualified her for this particular role. I took the bag and went out to wait for the van, either Comfort Inn or Best Western, or maybe both words would be on the same van.

A few minutes later the van arrived. Another couple joined us. They had missed their flight to Miami, their home, because the wife was smoking a cigarette outside somewhere and had gotten the time mixed up. They were stressed out, to say the least. We arrived at the hotel, one of the more rustic ones near the airport. I am sure the hotel had been chosen by some financial person in the corporation who would never have to actually stay there. I asked for a non-smoking room, but there were only smoking rooms left, unless I wanted to pay extra. The airline would not pay for it. I would need to pay the difference.

It has been that kind of day, I thought to myself. I wondered about the future logic of driving from Charlotte to Nashville, maybe renting a car, on my four meetings a year. I asked for a wakeup call at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, and reminded the guy at the desk that I would need to leave promptly at 5:00 a.m., my flight being at 6:05 a.m. I would be cutting it close. 15 minutes to the airport, 5-I0 minutes at the ticket desk, 10 minutes going through security, maybe 5 minutes getting to the gate. If everything went well, I would arrive 20-30 minutes prior to departure, assuming the flight actually existed, or left on time. By now I am paranoid about the whole experience. I must admit that I did not have full confidence in the hotel employee, who was, I am guessing, from some place in eastern Europe. He did not strike me as especially competent or focused on the work.

I did remember, several times, to pray the serenity prayer, the part about the things I could not change.

I woke up the next morning at 4:00 a.m., having slept perhaps three hours. I got my things together, and went down the lobby. A nice Asian woman was staffing the desk now. The hotel did have a restaurant, which offered a complimentary full and delicious breakfast, but not at 4:30 in the morning. I was able to eat some raison bran, and had made coffee in my room. I waited for 5:00 a.m., along with the couple from Miami. 5:00 a.m. came. 5:05 came. At 5:07 the driver arrived, we went out to the van, put out bags in. I am guessing that he was hispanic (although most drivers I have encountered are Haitians). He pulled out his notebook, recorded the mileage, how many passengers, made some other calculations and notations, etc. He then drove less than the speed limit on the almost deserted path to the airport.

I arrived back again at the same ticket counter I had passed through the day before. Thankfully, I was ahead and not behind what looked like a high school soccer team. I got the ticket. Did I want to check any bags, I was asked. No, I am keeping them with me, I replied. I tried to remember that no one I was meeting had anything to do with what had happened the day before. I passed through a fairly busy security line. Like grocery stores in the middle of the night, most lanes were closed, and the people who staff them are more about compliance that customer service. I made it through. It was now 5:45 a.m., Nashville time.

I boarded the plane and continued to work on a Sunday School lesson that I would teach a little later that morning. We left, more or less, on time. The last passengers aboard were an assertive/aggressive couple with a young baby, who came in at the last minute and demanded (in a questioning way) if someone would rearrange themselves to accomodate them. A fellow moved to the seat across from me in this shuffle; he had an earring and his hair was bleached. It turns out that he is a country music television producer. We talked about Merlefest.

I read a little, drank the complimentary coffee, and looked forward to seeing Pam at the Charlotte airport. We landed safely at 8:20 a.m., having lost an hour on the 50 minute flight home. We stopped at a Bojangles to have breakfast, and there I changed into my church clothes.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

intercession and mystery

Intercession is a mystery. Yes, there are scientific studies that link meditation with wellness, prayer with health, spiritual practice with physical functioning. Yet intercession remains a mystery. Some who intercede have great clarity about what they are doing; others are not so sure. Some who intercede discover a source of serenity; others are troubled. Some sense that they are fulfilling God's purpose in interceding for others; others wonder about any divine reality associated with their concern.

We live in a culture that values definition, which is also a way of being in control. The idea that "prayer doesn't change God, but prayer changes us" is a form of this, because, of course, God is the mysterious agent in intercession. Prayer can never be reduced to the behavior modification of people. Human transformation is the work of God, but God's work is not limited to the changes that occur in us.

Intercession is a mystery, the transcendent God is called forth, to intervene in human nature and destiny. For this reason we cannot control the outcome of transcendence: it is storm, fire, wind, flood, life out of and beyond death. At times we can only make the promise that we will be in prayer for others. Across years of ministry, I have sometimes found myself saying that almost as a default command. But what do I mean when I promise to pray for others?

A part of the mystery has to do with unexplained suffering. Another aspect of the mystery is related to the anticipated outcomes and results for which we pray. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has defined intercession as "thinking of something or someone in the presence of God" (A Ray of Darkness, 117), and the practice of intercession is not to allow God and person, God and world to fall apart from each other. We belong together. This is a good way into thinking about the intentions of our prayers. We often pray for specific outcomes, and we do this for a variety of reasons: we are asked to pray for health, or that a program may be successful, or that a home may be sold, or that a person may find work. We often have our own ideas about happiness and success, about difficulty and pain, and we want others to know the former and to avoid the latter!

All of this can lead intercessory prayer to become very outcome-oriented and results driven, and such a posture shapes much of the conversation about answered and unanswered prayer. Rowan Williams invites us to consider the simple bringing together of a person and God. In intercession, I might think not of my friend and his search for work, but I might simply think of him in the presence of God: the light of God in all of its brilliance, the life of God in all of its abundance, the love of God in all of its mystery.

Such a prayer challenges us in a couple of respects. We can lose perspective, and focus on one of the realities (God, the person) to the exclusion of the other. We can focus on the glory and majesty of God, but this is more appropriately praise and adoration, or we can see only the person in need, and hear the request, but this is human relationship. Intercession holds both together, the person and God.

When our prayers have, as their primary focus, the thinking about a person in the presence of God, questions about outcomes are seen in a different light. We trust the outcomes to God. We relinquish control. We pay attention, but it is an attention that is not so worried about results. God is in control. We remember that God loves us. We know that God has a purpose. When life seems chaotic and broken, God is in the midst of it---nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). And so our most profound prayer is that God will stay close to his people, even in the midst of the storms that rage and the wilderness that stretches as far as our eyes can see.

The scriptures tell the story again and again of individuals who sought to be faithful, even without knowing what the outcomes might be: Moses sees the promised land but does not enter it; Jesus says, "not my will, but thy will be done". Abraham and Sarah go into a land that is unknown to them with only a promise. Esther risks her life to do what she knows is right. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gives a panaromic glimpse of this reality: we seek to be faithful, we pray, but we cannot be sure about the outcome.

And yet, while we do not know the future, we know the One who holds the future. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, (Revelation 21. 6).

In our praying for others, we can let go of the outcomes that we desire. We can see the person, and think of her, in the presence of God. This prayer will be sufficient, and God will be with us. We are able to pray in this way for a simple reason: Christian prayer assumes the miraculous, that God speaks, listens and responds through human beings, but also that God works in ways that are beyond our powers. Christian prayer also assumes that God is not bound by space or time. We are connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ across the planet (we celebrate this reality on World Communion Sunday) and with our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in the faith across the centuries (as we engage in the observance of All Saints).

This conviction is important for the one who intercedes on behalf of others, for the scriptures insist that in our devotion we join in a prayer that has already begun. The writer of Hebrews insists, "He always lives to make intercession for others"(Hebrews 7. 25). Jesus is the high priest, the chief exemplar of intercession, and in our prayers for others we somehow participate, mysteriously, in his ongoing ministry.

Paul, writing to the Romans, reminds them that Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and intercedes for us (Romans 8). Thus our intercessions are not our own inventions, nor are they our burden to be carried alone. We lift them up to the Lord, and as we do they are shaped, improved, revised and gathered into the intercessions of all of God's people for one another and the world.

In intercessory prayer, we do not change the will of God. Or do we? There is a tradition in Old Testament prophecy in which the intercessor speaks to God and helps to restrain the divine anger at the people's unfaithfulness. But most of us wonder about this question because it implies that we know more about the human condition and destiny than God does. Even in our spiritual arrogance, most of us would like to avoid such a posture.

A positive meaning of changing the mind or will of God would be that we are partners with God in helping to shape the outcome. Maxie Dunnam's provocative question expresses this well: "what if God cannot, or will not answer prayer unless we pray?" Such a question calls forth our faithful persistence in prayer in positive ways, and most of us are indeed motivated to pray because we have a desire for a particular outcome or result: a healing, a reconciliation, a response to grace.

But there is a negative connotation in that we may sense that we know best, or claim a privileged knowledge, or worse, believe that God is at our disposal. We run through our list of requests, asking God for what we need. I am being blunt, of course, but here we are sending God on an errand to meet our needs and our perception of the needs of others. This is a very egocentric form of spiritual practice, and it is among the reasons that many people do not engage in intercession. Deep within, they know that a God worthy of worship is not moved by this expression of spiritual pride. Here our intercessions are no more than wish fulfillment.

The correction to this negative practice is humility---God's ways are not our ways---and a sense that God's will is sometimes revealed through providence and in God's own time. And yet the necessity of our active participation in intercession should not be lost. We are invited to cooperate in the work of God's grace. We are called into alignment in the unfolding will of God. At times we cannot be sure of the outcome, or of our effectiveness in prayer. We pray, entering into the mystery of the spiritual realm, seeing through a mirror dimly, yearning to see God face to face (1 Corinthians 13).

I was leaving a hospital, having made a call to an individual in our congregation, and on the way to the parking lot I encountered a retired minister. He shared with me that the wife of a mutual friend, also a retired minister, was in the hospital and was near death. He gave me her room number and I entered the hospital again. When I stepped into the room I greeted my friend, his wife, and their pastor. We talked for a few minutes, and then the woman's pastor asked if we could pray together. He then invited a woman, a custodian who was an employee of the hospital, to join us in the circle of prayer. She gladly said yes and became a part of the prayer. As the five of us prayed, I sensed a release of God's energy in the room, a movement of the spirit, a synergy of grace. Like the best experiences of prayer, it was mysterious. And yet surely the presence of the Lord was in that place, on that afternoon.

Well-meaning persons will sometimes argue that prayer does not change God, but that it does at times change the one who prays. There is truth in this statement---compassion replaces anger; empathy overcomes resentment. Our spiritual pride gives way to humility--- but it is not the whole truth. As we pray, we are changed. But to leave it there would be to reduce prayer to a human experience, even a psychological phenomena.

I am convinced that God is a full partner, an active agent in the prayers of Christians. Something human and divine is at stake. In prayer we have access to the transforming power of God, which changes us and others, in ways we cannot always anticipate. Prayer is more than the total effect upon the one who engages in the practice. Prayer is the release of an energy that is simply not present otherwise. What this means precisely is difficult to describe, but it is worth considering, if for no other reason than the recurring requests many of us receive to pray for others.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

ash wednesday/hurt

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3. 19).

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have created us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

(United Methodist Book of Worship)


I hurt myself today

To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
I wear my crown of s**t
On my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stain of time
The feeling disappears
You are someone else
I am still right here
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

Remixed by: Trent Reznor
In memoriam: Johnny Cash