Saturday, April 29, 2006

merlefest again

It has become a part of my liturgical calendar: Ash Wednesday, Lent, Easter, Merlefest. It happens in the small town of Wilkesboro, on the campus of Wilkes Community College each year, generally the last week of April. Last year 80,000 people came, so it would qualify as a mega-church. I have attended consistently over the past few years, usually choosing one night. This year the night was dictated by a wedding rehearsal and wedding on Friday and Saturday nights (a really nice couple named Cyndi and Billy). Sunday is a workday, so that left Thursday night.

Steve, Moe and I left Charlotte before rush hour hit, making our way north on I-77 and then west on NC 421. We took the Wilkes Community College exit and parked in lot C. A scout bus took us to the entrance, which is something like mecca for roots music fans. We entered. We settled into our portable chairs and listened to Doc Watson singing "Summertime and The Living Is Easy" and "I am A Pilgrim". My friend Richard from Winston-Salem met us. He and I had once listened to Steve Earle in a rainstorm at Merlefest. The weather was nicer this evening. Doc is eighty-three years old...amazing, and he has not lost anything. He remains a virtuouso guitarist. The music alternates between the Cabin Stage (smaller) and the Watson Stage (larger). The evening then progressed from Feufollet (cajun) to Darrell Scott (singer-songwriter) to Jim Lauderdale (country) to John Prine (folk).

Feufollet had an energy that reminded me of prior Merlefest concerts by Nickel Creek and the Duhks. Darrell Scott began his set with a funky version of "Long Time Gone", which he wrote for the Dixie Chicks. I have always loved this part of the song:

"Now, me and deliah singing every sunday
Watching the children and the garden grow
We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’
But the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound haggard
They’ve got money but they don’t have cash
They got junior but they don’t have hank
I think, I think, I think

The rest is a long time gone..."

He then moved through a lot of material from his latest cd, The Invisible Man. Jim Lauderdale and his band performed a number of bluegrass, gospel and country pieces, including "Joy, Joy, Joy" from I Feel Like Singing Today, which he recorded with Ralph Stanley, and 'Zaccheus" from his new cd, which is just out. I felt like I was in church. My kind of mega-church, out under the stars. He didn't sing 'Goodbye Song", but you can't have it all.

John Prine was the headliner for the evening. Pam and I had seen him about ten years ago in Greensboro, at the Carolina Theater. He began with "Paradise" ('Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenburg County"), and 'Angel From Montgomery", which was covered nicely by Bonnie Raitt. He closed his set with "Lake Marie", which must be one of the darkest and more bizarre folk songs out there, interweaving "Louie, Louie" into it along the way.

We left after his set, although there was more, that evening and indeed throughout this weekend. Among the performers this weekend are Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Gillian Welch. It is an amazing event. Last year I wrote an article about it for the Charlotte Observer. It is nice to get out of the city; nice to watch the sunset, listening to roots music, among friends, eating an ear of roasted corn. It did get cold later than evening, but we were prepared. Finally, we collected our things, caught the shuttle to parking lot C, found my car, and made our way back to the big city, the music still ringing in our ears.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

margaret garner

Yesterday I did something today that I very rarely do. I went to the opera. Opera Carolina in Charlotte produced the southern premier of Margaret Garner, an opera written by Toni Morrison and loosely related to the character in her novel, Beloved. The plot is based on a slave narrative, and takes an historical event, the news account of Margaret Garner's life, as an imaginative jumping off place, in the words of Morrison.

There are a number of themes at work in the opera. Margaret Garner is a wife and mother. She sees his husband killed, after they have escaped (briefly) to freedom; she then kills her two children, because she does not want them to grow up as slaves; she is then tried for destruction of property, rather than murder. A prominent question in the opera is whether a slave is property or human, whether slaves can know the meaning or "quality" of love. The slave owner, Edward Gaines, struggles with his more progressive daughter about this question. She challenges his perspective, and in the end he intervenes to gain clemency for Margaret, although she would still be in his custody, but Margaret finally chooses death as the way to freedom and hangs herself.

I had been a member of an advisory group that had sought ways to involve the community in this opera. One piece of that was a lecture earlier in the week by Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate. She was an engaging speaker, as you might imagine. She read poetry and verse from spirituals, and reflected on the writing of Beloved and Margaret Garner (she is quite clear that the two are not the same). The opera clearly helped our community to reflect on this shared history that is our burden, and those in attendance today reflected a wide cross-section of the community. Slavery continues to exist in our world; wives and young girls are separated from their families (as Nicholas Kristof has reported on so vividly); race in America remains our unhealed wound. These thoughts stayed with me as I left the opera, and yet I was grateful for the vocations of artists whose visions recover narratives long forgotten by many of us, and illumine, in disturbing ways, something of our present struggles.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

an earth day prayer of confession

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

death has been swallowed up in victory (easter)

At every memorial service, someone has observed, at every funeral, there are actually two preachers. There is the pastor, and there is death. Regardless of what is said, two messages are clearly voiced. One might be about hope, the other despair. One might be of celebration; the other of devastation. One might be of victory; the other defeat. One voice might be shouting, the other whispering, but make no mistake: there are two preachers.

The apostle Paul knew this, and 1 Corinthians 15 is an extended meditation on the questions raised by these two preachers. Paul knows it is a contested question, this matter of life after death, this issue of the resurrection. And so he draws upon everything from within his power to make the appeal: personal experience; eyewitness accounts; logic; history; prophecy; paradox; persuasion; encouragement. In the end, Paul gives a compelling testimony, one that is the foundation for our gathering on this Easter morning.

"Testimony is a word that has fallen into disrepair in our time". And so Christian testimony can be speaking words that we think others want to hear, or mimicing the words that we hear others speak. Christians gather around each other, and we parrot the phrases we’ve heard, we take comfort in stories that inspire us. This is fine, but it is not testimony.

"Testimony is a word that is borrowed from the court of law, and in a court of law, something important is being contested, someone is on trial: The executives of a corporation, a government official, a terrorist, a university athletic team, a foreign dictator. In court a decision has to be made, and in order to make the right decision, the court needs to know “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Everything depends on the honesty of the witness. For this reason perjury, or bearing false witness is a serious crime, for without truthful testimony, the law, and a society based on law, cannot exist.

Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory, has helped us to recover the importance of testimony. He writes:

“Christians understand themselves to be in the biggest court case of all, the trial of the ages. What is being contested is the very nature of reality, and everything is at stake. Was the universe created by a loving and just God, or is the universe a blind and random collection of cold stones and burning embers floating through empty space and unshaped by a creative hand? Are human beings created in the image of God, and given lives of purpose and meaning, or is life a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?…When we stand at the grave of someone we have loved, can we hope to meet again on another shore and in a brighter light, or is this weak sentimentality and a cowardly denial of the brute facts? Everything is before the jury.”

Every one of us is here this morning, as jury, and there are two messages, two preachers. We hear these messages not only on Easter Sunday, but throughout our lives. We are, in fact, wandering around waist deep in messages about who we are, why we are here and what our ultimate purpose is: Are we defined as people by a photographic image of perfection, or an imagined bottom line of net worth, or a respected profession, or a household of model children? Are we defined as a nation by our level of security? Are we defined as a church by an estimation of success?

You bet we are, if we allow the world to set the agenda. If we don’t have a clear sense of identity and mission and destiny in life, someone will come along to tell us who we are. And of course, Easter, resurrection, eternal life is at woven into all of that. It is fundamental. Do I think that this life is all there is? That’s death preaching to me. Paul heard the voice of that preacher, he had wrestled with the implications of that logic and he knew where it ended. If this life is all there is, he said, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. If this life is all there is, then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

That is the message that comes across to us in a culture of death: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die. Do you remember the bumper sticker: The one who dies with the most toys wins. It is an honest, secular vision of life. I respect it, even if I do not agree with it, even if I believe that it is false witness.

There is more. There has to be more. And that is why we’re here. Something is at stake at Easter. You live long enough, you see people suffer. You live long enough, you catch yourself waiting for test results. You live long enough, you see people you love die. You live long enough, you find yourself standing at gravesides.

And that is where Easter comes in. Easter is all about the death of Jesus. But Easter is more. The good news is that God has raised him from the dead. And the even better news is that God will raise us from the dead and give us a new life, an eternal life.

That’s good news.

Paul knew something was at stake, and he had to tell this news truthfully. What was the alternative? If Christ is not raised, our preached in is vain, and your faith has been in vain. In other words, if Easter is not true, I might as well be out hitting a tennis ball, you might as well be leaning over a golf ball, or turning over from the last nap.

It the dead are not raised, Paul said, let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

And so the Easter message comes as an insistence on truth. Death has been swallowed up in victory.

Swallowed up in victory. Easter is all about the victory of God. Again, there is a need for clarity. This is why, in sports, the umpiring matters, the refereeing matters, the scoreboard matters. We want to know who has prevailed. For a time, we cannot be certain. But in the end, there is a victory, for someone.

The Christian wonders, is it death or life? Is it all meaningless, or is there a purpose? Are we cursed or blessed? Is it about the love of power, or the power of love?

What is it?

Cassie Bernall walked into Columbine High School on Tuesday morning, a promising student. Soon the high school became a war zone.

Do you believe in God?,” one of the heavily armed gunsman asked the blonde girl reading her Bible in the library while the school was under siege.

Yes, I believe in God,” she replied in a voice strong enough to be heard by classmates hidden beneath the nearby tables and desks.

The gunsman in the long black trench coat laughed, Why?”, he asked mockingly. Then he raised his gun and shot and killed 17 year old Cassie Bernall.

It seems that Cassie must have had a premonition. She had reflected on these questions of life and death. When it became apparent that she was not coming home that horrible Tuesday, her brother found these words that she had written on a notebook laying on her desk:

Now I have given up on everything else—
I have found it to be the only way

To really know Christ and
to experience the Mighty power
that brought Him back to life again,
and to find Out what it means to suffer
and to Die with him.
So whatever it takes
I will be the one who lives in the fresh
Newness of life of those who are
Alive from the dead.

For a time it is contested. But in the end, death is swallowed up in victory. In the spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan has Christian walking along the road, when to his horror he notices a ferocious lion is standing in his path. There is no way he can avoid the animal or the situation. He is terrified, but he continues to walk. Then, he is delighted to learn that the lion is chained to a post. Someone has made this journey before him, and has tamed the lion. Although Christian has to make this journey, someone has made the road safe for him. Someone has disarmed the hostile creature. The lion remains, but the threat has been removed.

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?

This is not the denial of death. The women go to the tomb, the gospel writers tell us, while it is still dark. We are not pretending that death is not real, that it holds no power.

We are affirming that death has been swallowed up in victory. This is a statement of faith, of affirmation of hope. The resurrection sets before us a decision. In the words of Andy Defreyne in The Shawshank Redemption, you either get busy living or get busy dying. In the dilemma facing Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, you either keep walking or you turn back. In the grief of those women who woke up early and went to the tomb, while it was still dark, you either give up or you turn to the Lord. In the meditation of Cassie Bernall, it is to give up everything else and to suffer, die and rise with Christ.

On Easter, in life, there are two preachers, there are two voices, there are two paths. In the earliest document outside of the New Testament, the Didache, there is the first sentence: there is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death.

The good news, brothers and sisters, is that this is true. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Death has been swallowed up in victory, and how can we respond? With the words of the apostle Paul: Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Who give us the victory…Therefore, Paul writes, as a closing thought: be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. And so let us go forth to live as resurrected people:

Love’s redeeming work is done, alleluia.
Fought the fight, the battle won, alleluia.
Death in vain forbids him rise, alleluia.
Christ has opened paradise, alleluia.

Sources: Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing On The Cross?. Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian. Charles Wesley, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today”.

Friday, April 14, 2006

today you will be with me in paradise (good friday)

Luke’s gospel had told us, in the middle of the story, that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. There the encounter, the showdown, the conflict would occur. There the cross would await him. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. Was Jesus looking for a conflict, a cross? No, but he had begun to understand that his mission in life included a cross and the suffering that went with it.

The great theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was teaching at Union Theological Seminary as a visiting professor from Germany, as Hitler was beginning his rise to power in his home country. Bonhoeffer reads Paul’s appeal to Timothy to “come before winter”, and he returned to give his life there, for the gospel. In life, in ways visible and behind the scenes, Bonhoeffer wrote, “we don’t have to go looking for suffering, for the cross, it will find us”.

The waving of palm branches have given way to a cross on that hill far away, the cheers of Hosanna to the jeers of soldiers and religious authorities, the gathered crowds become only a few, everyone else having abandoned the whole matter.

A number of scenes related to Holy Week could come into focus here, it would be like shuffling through snapshots, or clicking through images on a digital camera now, I suppose, but we will stay with one. The one that catches our eye is Jesus, hanging on a cross at Golgotha, the place of the skull. He is there between two thieves, one on his left, and one on his right. Luke alone records the conversation between them. It is a visual image of the prophecy of Isaiah, that Jesus himself had reflected on and quoted: HE WAS NUMBERED AMONG THE TRANSGRESSORS (52. 13).

The two thieves, so far from him in life, so near to him in death, respond in surprisingly different ways. One rejects, the other accepts. One mocks, the other takes seriously. One is the response of secularity and cynicism, the other of radical faith and trust. These are different responses, and yet, if we are honest, many of us find these voices speaking from within us---at times we reject, at others we accept; at times we are defiant, and maybe voice our own skepticism about the usefulness or reality of religious piety; at other times, we can be childlike in our own faith.

There are two criminals there. The one mocks, the other confesses. Hanging between them, someone has observed that the cross stands not between two candles but in in the midst of two thieves, two outcasts, two sinners. Again, in death Jesus is exactly where he had been in life. You can read Luke’s gospel as a narrative of the characters whose lives intersected with Jesus:

The man with a demonic spirit and Simon’s mother-in-law, near death in Luke 4;
A man with leprosy, another man who is paralyzed, and Levi, a despised tax collector, in Luke 5;
The Roman officer’s servant, near death, the widow’s son, the Gerasene Demoniac who was chained in the graveyards, in Luke 8;
A boy foaming in the mouth, in Luke 9;
The unheard of act of teaching a woman in Luke 10;
A man unable to speak in Luke 11;
A crippled woman, whom Jesus heals on the Sabbath, in Luke 13;
The healing of ten lepers in Luke 17;
The radical gesture of welcoming children in Luke 18;
Going into the home of Zaccheus, a despised tax collector, in Luke 19;
Sharing a meal with Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him, in Luke 22.

And when Jesus wasn’t living the message, he was teaching it, in parables, which are often stories about outcasts, just in case we missed the point, Jesus would talk about good Samaritans (Luke 10) and prodigal son (Luke 15), and these are some of his best-known teachings.

In life and in death, Jesus was near the outcasts, the failures, the sinners: sometimes they got it and sometimes they did not, and maybe the same is true for you and me. And he is near to them---he stoops to their weakness, and ours---in a cross; a cross not between two candles, but between two sinners.


The two thieves remind us that, at the cross, it is all level ground. None of us can say, of ourselves, I HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG. And yet the one being crucified between two thieves/outcasts/sinners is innocent. God---purity, righteousness, love---is in the midst of sin, guilt and death. He hangs right there on a cross, in the middle of it all. He is numbered among the transgressors. If we were looking at a snapshot, we couldn’t miss it.

And of course, this is the heart of the matter, the central focus, the question about the very nature of who God is and what God is like. God is in the midst of the world, not distant or detached from it. The early church father Irenaeus, meditating on the nature of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, gave us the beautiful image of the Son and the Spirit as the two arms of God, the cross as God’s embrace of every enemy and outcast, of all suffering and pain, of every thief and sinner.

He hangs there at Golgotha. It is almost too much. The writers of the passion hymns have captured the overwhelming sense of the gift of his presence there, and what it meant, and what it means still:

“O Love divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God has died for me”.

“Was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown And love beyond degree”.

“What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul!”

Jesus keep me near the cross, there a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream, flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”.

“What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, dearest friend?”

One of those hanging on a cross beside Jesus was taking all of this in. He could only say: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Remember me. In the Bible, when God remembers, God acts, God does something, God saves. Remember me. It is the appeal of a thief, an outcast, a sinner: Remember me.

And it is an appeal that God hears. The Apostle Paul wrote: whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Even a thief. Even an outcast. Even a sinner. Even you. Even me. Whoever.

We can say no more and no less than the thief, the sinner, the outcast: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And the one who hangs on the cross, the crucified God, speaks: “Today you will be with me in paradise”.

Today; not just a future promise, but a present reality. Today.

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, when we are reminded that we don’t have to go looking for suffering, for a cross.

The cross will find us.

The message and mystery of Holy Week, however, is that this turns out to be good news, dawning upon us, claiming our attention, calling for our response: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And then we listen for the promise: Today you will be with me in paradise.


We have stayed awhile with this one scene: Jesus on the cross, between two thieves, two outcasts, two sinners, between you and me. If we look closely we will see that His arms are reaching out to us, like a shepherd gathering lost sheep, like a great physician touching the wounds of a leper, the cross as blunt instrument begins to bend toward mercy and compassion, the arms of the cross are curving toward us, like the embrace of a Father who has been waiting for a lost child to come home.

Sources: Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace; Richard Lischer, The End of Words.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

the core truth

You are a preacher, and the assigned text that comes up is John 3. 16. If I asked most of you, “what is the best known verse in the Bible?”, you would probably say John 3. 16. Many of us learned it as children: For God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. There is a verse that follows John 3. 16, one that we would benefit from knowing just as well, one that is less known to most of us, but we will get to that on another day: it is worth hearing again: For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

God loves us. That is a simple affirmation of faith. Well, God is like that. God is gracious and merciful and kind. That would be like God. We can affirm those words, but like many truths, this one sometimes doesn't penetrate too far beneath the skin. And yet it is true. God loves us. In fact, God loves the world.

God loves you and God loves me.
God loves the old and God loves the young.
God loves the U.S. and God loves Iran.

God loves the natives and God loves the immigrants.
God loves conservatives and God loves liberals.
God loves normal people, whatever that is, and God
loves different people.

It begins, I am convinced, with believing the core truth, that God loves you. In his baptism, at his transfiguration, Jesus heard the words "You are my beloved, I am pleased with you". As the gospel goes forward that core truth gets applied to us: God loves you.

If it is not as easy as it might seem to preach about John 3. 16, it is also not that easy to preach about love, because that word "love" has been applied to everything in our culture, from ipods to vacation sites to your favorite sports team. Loving something might mean desiring it, having fun with it, enjoying life in
a different way because of it, wanting to consume it.

And there is also the problem that love can simply mean appreciating something that is exceptional or beautiful. I remember Pam and I watching a country music video---I don't often the remote in our household, I mentioned that last week, but on this evening I did---and we were watching country music videos and a woman was singing "My baby loves me just the way that I am". She had large blue eyes and maybe an ounce of body fat, and Pam turned to me and said "my baby loves me just the way that I am...what's not to love"!

The love we are talking about has a different meaning. When John says that God loves the world, it does not mean the natural created world, and it does not refer to all of the goodness that is in the world. The world that God loves is at odds with God. God so loved the worldly...God loves us in spite of what we might do or think or feel.

From our place in all of this, we might sometimes think that we are not worthy of God's love. But this is one of the core truths of Christianity: God loves you. And of course, Paul writing to the Ephesians knows that this is a gift of grace. We do not deserve God's love, we do earn God's love, we can never repay God's love. It is a gift. I love the words in Henri Nouwen's Life of the Beloved, words that echo Isaiah and Romans, Jeremiah and the Psalms:

”I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you from the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother's womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow on my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate that that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You belong to me. Nothing will ever separate us”.

Once we hear this word, that we are loved, we listen for it more attentively. Do you remember the words of the old gospel, the song about the old, old story of Jesus and his love:

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
It a story, a word, a core truth that we hunger for: that God loves us.

This love we know most clearly in Jesus Christ. An Anglican priest friend shared this prayer recently, a prayer that he begins each day with:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross
that everyone might come within the reach
of your saving embrace:
so clothe us in your spirit that we,
reaching forth your hands in love,
may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name. Amen.

In Jesus Christ God stretches out his arms toward us...I hope to preach about that on Palm Sunday...and those arms embrace us, the arms of the cross, the clearest symbol of God's love. Those arms were stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, reminding us that love is always sacrificial and grace is always

I want to share a personal story. Our older daughter was a very good viola player. She played in the youth symphony of the city, and at in the summers at the Appalachian Music Festival, and in the county, regional and state orchestras during her high school years. Pam and I spent many afternoons and evenings waiting for
concerts to begin, listening to the many of the same pieces, over and over again: the Brandenburg Concerto, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. One evening Liz’s violin teacher was talking to us and Pam asked her guidance about purchasing a new viola. Did we need to look into that? And her viola teacher said, in a nice way, "Liz is at the place where she probably does need a new viola. If her viola were a car, it would be a pinto. It’s time to replace the pinto".

She was being honest, in a very nice way, of course. And so Pam looked into violas, and finally found one that the teacher approved of. Pam never told me how much it cost, although I know it cost more than one of our cars.

What I remember most is our giving it to her on her sixteenth birthday. We went out to breakfast, early in the morning, the three of us. Pam left in the middle of the meal and went to the car and brought it inside. As she carried the viola, which was in the case, it seemed to me that she was bringing a sacrifice. And of course, she was doing just that. It was a sacrifice.

There is no love without sacrifice.

God loves you. But one other comment about that core truth. Whenever we have heard the good news, really heard the good news deep in our bones, that God loves us, we begin to fulfil the second part of that prayer.

so clothe us in your spirit that we, reaching forth your hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name”.

Nouwen writes:

When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness”.

Since God loved us, the writer of I John wrote, we love one other. And so we pray that the arms of Jesus Christ will extend through us to those who do not know him or love him or know that he loves them.

It is not that we have to love other people. It is the love of God, and the enormity of God's sacrifice and the amazing character of God's grace overflowing from within us. It is the natural consequence of the core truth: God loves you. God loves the world.

Annie Lamott, the writer of unusual and compassionate books on the faith, once asked a rabbi why the Old Testament speaks of writing the words on our hearts, rather than in our hearts. The wise rabbi responded, "Oh, that's easy. When the heart is broken, the words fall in".

The heart of God is one of love for you, and for me, and for all people. And if our hearts are broken, may the words of the core truth fall in:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

It is true: even those of us who know it best, this core truth, seem hungering and thirsting, sometimes, to hear it like the rest.

Source: Henri Nouwen, Life of The Beloved

Monday, April 10, 2006

beijing two

Ni hao.

We were in Beijing for thirteen days. Beijing is a city of fifteen million people, located at the edge of the North China Plain. It was a frontier trading town for the Mongols and Koreans, and was later the capital of the Yan Kingdom (5th century bc). It experienced a number of dynasties over the next fifteen hundred years It was razed by the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan in 1215 ad, who rebuilt the city with rings of walls, with the Drum Tower at the center. The Khan regime was succeeded by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); during this time the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven were built, and the Great Wall was rebuilt and extended. The basic plan of Beijing was established during this era and existed until the Communist-inspired Cultural Revolution (1966-) In the middle of the 17th century the Qing Dynasty began, as the Manchus penetrated the Great Wall and ruled for 250 years. In these years a number of foreign invaders wreaked havoc on the city.

The modern era begins in China in the early twentieth century. The nation is ruled by a federation of warlords and foreigners, and into this mix Mao rises to power. In 1949 the Communists come into power,as Mao addresses an audience of 500,000 in Tienamen Square. There ensues the destruction of temples, walls and monuments, and the influence of Soviet architecture becomes obvious. In 1966 the Cultural Revolution is launched: everything old is to be destroyed. From 1979 onward Beijing began to open itself to the outside world. Massive construction projects were initiated, often at the expense of the traditional hutongs, and the city began to embrace an interesting mix of communist and capitalist practices, which reflect its deep traditional culture and its openness to modernity.

Recent issues facing Beijing are preparations for hosting the 2008 Olympics, an emerging environmental crisis, the experience of overpopulation, the absorption and just treatment of migrant workers, and the desire for freedom in markets and social expression. For the United States, China is a critical partner in that we have purchased goods from them over the past years, and China has used these funds to purchase U.S. treasury bills. Approximately half of our $1.2 trillion debt is with China and Japan. In essense, these countries have funded the U.S. economy over the past six years, in particular the war in Iraq. This debt connects us with Asia in ways that will shape our relationship over well into this century.

Of course, China is important apart from its relationship to the U.S. It is an overwhelming place, rich in history, diverse in geography, blessed with intellectual capital and primed for world prominence in the 21st century. I will reflect on the mission of Christianity in China in a future blog. For more on Beijing and China, I recommend the following: The Lonely Planet Guidebooks for Beijing and China; Tom Friedman's The World is Flat; and Thunder From The East by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.


Saturday, April 08, 2006


It has been roughly two weeks since the last post. They will now resume with more frequency---thanks for your patience and for stopping by. Some people take spring break trips to Disney, or to Daytona, or to Panama City. Our spring break was spent in Beijing, where our older daughter is spending seven months with the Chinese language (she is an Asian Studies major at Chapel Hill). Most pastors don't observe spring break, I know, as if falls during the very busy Lenten season, but this year the planets aligned around this time, with both daughters having a spring break at roughly the same time. And so off we went.

We left on Monday, March 27. The flight was a twenty-four hour experience, from Charlotte to Detroit to Toyko to Beijing. My wife had made the trip a few days earlier, and so the four of us connected on Tuesday afternoon. The next nine days were spent doing the following:

eating roast duck (a Beijing specialty) and Hot Pot
visiting the Forbidden City, which is massive
hiking up to the Great Wall
walking on Tienamen Square
taking in the Beijing Zoo and Aquarium
sampling contemporary Chinese art at the Red Gate Gallery
hiking into the grounds of the Summer Palace
making our way through the Lama Temple
mastering the Beijing Subway System
learning a few Chinese phrases
shopping at the antique market, the pearl market, and the silk market
having a fun meal with the four UNC students who were there
seeing Chinese acrobatics one evening
coming upon a superb Tex-Mex restaurant
wandering through Ritan Park

A scene I will remember: one morning Pam and I were taking a walk and we found ourselves on a winding path that went on for several blocks. We then began to hear birds singing, and we discovered that a number of men had brought their birds, in cages, and hung them in proximity to each other in the trees. It was a very interesting experience to hear the beautiful music and I wondered about how such a practice had emerged and what it meant for those gathered.

I will write more later about China. It is an overwhelming country in many ways. For now it is good to be home, and to be entering into the meaning and mystery of Holy Week.