Monday, July 31, 2006

random summer stuff

More summer stuff...another trip to Junaluska, where our senior adults gathered this past weekend. I left in the evening, mid-week, and returned late Saturday night. While there I walked around the lake a few times, operated (for the first time) our gas grill, thanks to Wes, and started another novel, The City is A Rising Tide, by Rebecca Lee, who teaches at UNCW. It is set in New York City and in China, and since our daughter has been in Beijing for six months now, I thought she might like it when she returns, which is in two weeks (and counting!).

Prior to leaving, I had attended the Josh Ritter concert at the Visulite in Charlotte. He sang several of my favorites----"Kathleen", "I'm Trying Hard To Love You, You Don't Make It Easy", and "Hello Starling". He focused mostly on pieces from his new release, The Animal Years, which were enjoyable if unfamiliar. See the link under "Outside Voices", to the right.

But back to the mountains, I did have my first meal at the Moose Cafe, adjacent to the Farmer's Market, in Asheville. I recommend it. Also bought some apples, and they are good.

The group seemed to have a great time in Asheville/Junaluska, and they returned this afternoon. I was home for morning worship, and continued a series on the Lord's Prayer, this one on the phrase 'Forgive us our trespasses/sins". I will post it soon.

It is hot today in Charlotte! How hot is it?

It is so hot that when you dig up potatoes, they are already baked! But seriously...

Tomorrow is supposed to be the hottest day of the year for us. See my entry about Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From A Catastrophe, posted earlier.

It occurs to me that we make these plans for the coming year in the church, something we are doing at this very moment, and then something big happens, like 9/11 or Katrina, and everything changes. But still we make the plans for September, going forward.

An excellent piece appeared in the Sunday New York Times about the need to disconnect evangelical Christianity from partisan conservative politics. Thanks to Jonathan Marlowe for pointing it out to me, and he plans to blog about it (see "Inside Voices" to the right). Philip Yancey makes a similar point in his What's So Amazing About Grace?, and in a recent editorial in Christianity Today.

In your prayers please remember Jean Lesly and Maude Dorceley, the pastor and his wife who serve the Methodist Church and Circuit in Cap Haitien. They were in a serious auto accident, and have extensive injuries. I have had several meals with them, and Maude has driven me all over northern Haiti. We are taking up a collection at our church for their medical expenses.

Pam and I saw our one movie of the summer, Lady In The Water. I would give it a B+/A-, while my wife would probably give it higher marks. I don't want to spoil it for you, it's by the writer/director Shanana, who used to play in a rock band, I think, but the lady does get out of the water. But having said that, all of the people in the movie are not dead.

Some random thoughts, some more important than others, I am depending on your gift of discernment to sort it all out. The prayers for the Dorceleys take priority.

Stay cool, and God be with you!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

our daily bread: a reflection on the lord's prayer

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to pray these words: Give us this day, our daily bread. These words, these very simple words are so simple a child could say them and remember them. They can teach us some profound lessons about life.

We learn in this simple prayer first that we are receivers before we are givers. We are dependent before we are independent. Life is a gift. We are born into a world that we did not create, where we are dependent on our parents for life and shelter and nourishment. Life is a gift.

We grow up in a world where the gifts of others enrich our lives---I think this morning of 111 people heading to Garden City for a youth retreat---and I am grateful for those adults who share the gift of a week of their lives with our kids. I think of the people who support this church with their money. I don’t say this often enough, but I am grateful that I can spend my time doing the work that I do, and that is possible because of the generosity of the people of our church. Life is a gift.

And then, at the end of life, we are also dependent on the care of others, who attend to us, who comfort us, who prepare us for the next stage of the journey. Life is a gift.

Give us, we pray. Give us this day.

In these words we are reminded to focus not on yesterday, not on tomorrow, but on this day. Give us this day. I was having lunch with the most powerful man in the small community where we lived. He owned a significant portion of it. He was a good and faithful man. Since he was extremely wealthy, naturally we ate at the most inexpensive restaurant in town. I can still hear him say, “Ken, the special is really good, it’s a good value”.

He and his wife had always worked hard, got the kids launched, saved for retirement, and they had planned to travel. There was so much of the world they wanted to see. Then she had a massive stroke. He visited her every day at her retirement community. This was a good twenty years ago. I would do it different, if I had it to do over again”, he said that day. I wouldn’t spend so much time waiting for tomorrow. Some things I wouldn’t put off. I would appreciate today”.

“Give us this day”.

When Jesus began to teach us how to pray, he said, use these words: Give us this day our daily bread. We are tempted to live in yesterday, or in tomorrow.

Jesus teaches us to live in, to pray about this day.

God gives you, God gives us, this day. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. This day.

I love the translation of today’s scripture in The Message:

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,

and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.

Life is a gift.

God gives us this day.

We discover another truth as we pray these words. We discover that God provides. In the Old Testament we remember Israel's journey from slavery to freedom.

q Do you remember how God gave Israel manna in the wilderness, enough food for each day?

q Do you remember that they tried to hoard more than they needed, and the excess went bad?

q Do you remember that God's people were told not to harvest manna on the Sabbath, but they tried to anyway, and that too went bad?

q Do you remember that on the day before the Sabbath God provided enough food for that day and the next. The experience of Israel was as simple as the text to the hymn: Trust and Obey.

I was driving through the country a few years ago when a sign in front of a small, white-framed church caught my eye. It read:

When you realize that God is all you have,

God is all you need.

This prayer can help us, the most medicated and prosperous, the most anxious and well-off group of people in human history, in our journey from slavery to freedom. This prayer can remind us that God provides. When you realize that God is all you have, God is all you need.

In the Lord's Prayer we are taught to say these words: Give us this day our daily bread. In the New Testament we read in 2 Corinthians: My grace is sufficient for you. God gives us all that we need. God provides. Saint Augustine said, in the fourth century, “however rich a person is in this world, we are still beggars before God”. God provides.

This is echoed in a prayer of Thomas Merton:

In prayer we discover what we already have… Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need to experience is what we already possess.

God provides: that is our belief.

Trust and obey: that is our response.

This prayer teaches us to pray for those who are hungry. It may be a stretch for us to identify with those who are hungry. We live in a prosperous area of the community, most of us. We live in a prosperous part of the world, all of us. On my first mission to the beautiful and tragic country of Bolivia, next to Haiti the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we landed at the airport in Cochabamba, which seemed like a small rural elementary school. A van picked us up and we began driving. Looking out at the surroundings, one team member said, “this reminds me of when I was in Vietnam”. There was silence. We drove a little farther. More silence.

Then a woman spoke up. I wish I had a diet coke”, she said. More silence. Then we realized that there are no diet cokes in Bolivia. There is no market for diet cokes in Bolivia. No tourists come to Bolivia. No one is on a diet in Bolivia.

What does it mean to pray these words, Give us this day our daily bread, when it is literally a life and death petition, every day, to God? What does it mean when the person praying those words, Give us this day our daily bread, is as faithful to Christ as we are, as committed to the Lord as we are, and dependent that day on some response, as a life and death matter?

It means, I think, that we should remember the hungry when we pray these words. For some of our brothers and sisters in the world, this prayer, these words, today, are words about life and death. Give us this day our daily bread.

This prayer also teaches us to live in communion with Jesus, who is the bread of life. We need to remember that the presence of Jesus sustains us, each day. The Christian life is not about an experience of Jesus somewhere in the past: I had this relationship with Jesus. I walked down the aisle of a church, somewhere in the past. That’s like saying, I had this great meal, ten years ago, or, I had the most amazing bread when I was a child.

Each day we eat.

Each day we need daily bread.

Each day we need to receive Jesus.

Many of the interpreters of the prayer focus on the spiritual meaning. In John 6, Jesus, referring to God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, says

I am the bread of life, that comes down from heaven.

Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

In this phrase, we can learn a great deal about life. Some of us have gotten too caught up in being productive, and we have forgotten a simple truth: Life is a gift.

Some of us have been deferring life. Jesus teaches us to live in this day. Don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now.

Some of us are enslaved about how we are going to make it. We just don’t see the resources. Jesus teaches us to trust and obey. God provides.

Some of us are beginning to hear the voices of the hungry. Mostly they are voices of women and children. A number of them live in the United States. Mostly they live in other parts of the world. Jesus says to us, as he said to the boy on a hillside in Galilee, you give them something to eat.

Some of us are spiritually malnourished. We have been on a spiritual diet, or we have been going without the bread of life for so long that our spiritual life is weak, and we are hungry for something. Something that we need each day.

Give us this day our daily bread, Jesus teaches us to pray. Next week as we look at the Lord’s Prayer, we will go even deeper. What does it mean to pray the words: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. I invite you to think about your own life history in relation to forgiveness, and I invite you to listen and pray about what is going on in the very Galilee where Jesus taught this prayer of forgiveness. Is forgiveness possible for Israelis and Palestinians? Is forgiveness possible for us?

But today it is enough to remember a few simple truths:

Life is a gift.

Live one day at a time.

Remember that God provides.

Find a way to feed the hungry.

Receive Jesus, the bread of life and you will live forever.

Give us, this day, our daily bread!

Monday, July 24, 2006

hope lu burton

A few years ago, on Good Friday, our good friends Blaine and Beverly lost their two sons in an automobile accident. Yesterday, after a long and complex journey (geographicall and spiritually), they received their new and adopted daughter, Hope Lu.

They have always been and will be wonderful parents, and Hope's life will be blessed in ways she cannot now imagine.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

my latest book

Newly published by Abingdon Press. You can access it in the "text" link to the right. A collection of material related to baptisms in particular circumstances and settings, teaching sermons (most of them preached at either Mount Tabor UMC in Winston-Salem or Providence UMC in Charlotte), and alternative 'Thanksgivings Over The Water".

thy kingdom come: a reflection on the Lord's Prayer

The problem with religion, some folks will say, is that it is pie-in-the-sky. People who are religious are always living in some kind of dream world. And folks who pray, well, they’re just trying to escape. Open your eyes, and wake up, they would say. Get real!

There is a challenge among some folks to the whole idea of prayer. “What good is prayer? they might ask. “ What difference does it make? How does it affect the bottom line?”

In these weeks we are focusing on prayer, especially the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, and this morning is as good a time as any to take on questions like these. Last month we looked at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. And this morning we continue: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The problem with religion, these same folks might continue, is all of this business about a kingdom. What is that all about? Maybe they can’t quite imagine the kingdom of God, they don’t understand it. Jesus spoke more often about the kingdom than any other subject, but sometimes he spoke in parables, and usually he went in a direction that was exactly opposite from our way of seeing it. The kingdom was the place where God ruled, where God was in charge, where God’s will was becoming a reality. The kingdom is both present---a foretaste of glory divine, here and there, now and then, and---future. Sometimes we have glimpses of the kingdom. The blind see, the lame walk, the poor receive the gospel, this is the kingdom, Jesus said to the followers of John the Baptist (Matthew 11). And sometimes we realize that we are a long way from the kingdom.

When we pray, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying for something that we occasionally glimpse, but do not grasp. And so we pray in faith, and in hope. We say these words, week after week, Sunday after Sunday. What does it amount to? Fulfilling a ritual? What does it mean to pray these words.

The kingdom of God, in the scripture, is synonymous with the will of God. These two phrases are two ways of saying the same thing, that God will set everything on the right path and arrange everything in the right place and situate all things in right relationship to each other.

These are words that require a great measure of our faith and hope: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Faith and hope because, brothers and sisters, this is not the kingdom of God. The planet earth is not. The holy land, this weekend, is not. The United States of America is not. Your life is not, and my life is not. Because in so many respects, God’s will is not done. The human condition, the fractured family, the divided community, the polarized nation, the empires at odds with each other…we have prayed Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done, but it has not happened yet.

And so what does that mean for praying people? Do we give up on the idea of this kingdom because it seems so unreal to us, it seems impossible? Do we substitute some other hope for God’s kingdom?

Of course, we all look for substitutes, to some extent. We think the kingdom will come when we get that next promotion, when the kids are grown, when the right politician is elected, when my parents understand me, when I meet Mr. Right, or Miss Right, when my team wins the Super Bowl or the World Series.

We replace God’s big dream—a dream that has to do with justice and spirituality and relationship and beauty---- with our little dreams, and we place our hopes in earthly kingdoms, in lesser kingdoms. It’s easy to give up on the big dream, and yet, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday we pray these words that Jesus taught us, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; even when we know, deep in our hearts, that on most days earth doesn’t bear much resemblance to heaven. How can we keep praying these words?

I recently heard about a particular tribe, in Kenya that had an almost mystical connection to the primal element of fire. During the long rainy season certain elders of the tribe had been designated as keepers of the flame. During the heavy afternoon rains, these elders had the important responsibility of preserving a fire in their huts. Losing the fire was almost like losing the heart of the tribe.

Do you ever have days when the rains, the storms, are pouring all around you? When one bad experience, one difficult day, one overwhelming crisis, one personal disappointment follows another? When your dreams, your hopes, your plans, your vision of life becomes more and more fragmented, dampened, empty? Maybe it becomes harder and harder to keep the flame alive, to keep the dream alive. And the question becomes: Where is God's kingdom? Where is God's will?

Some of you may have read Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning. Someone told me that it was listed by U.S.A. Today as one of the ten most important self-help books of all time. In that book Frankl analyzed the lives of survivors of concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and came to a conclusion: those who made it out were men and women who had a very clear reason for surviving: to see a spouse, to tell this story to their children, to be reunited with parents. Those who survived were able to keep the dream alive; they were keepers of the flame.

Last March, The New York Times carried an article entitled “Misery Loves Optimism in Africa”. (March 5, 2006)

“Amouna sat quietly in the shade of her canvas tent, imagining the future of her 3 month old son, Haider, bundled in her lap. My son will go to school”, she declared, absentmindedly waving away the flies that clustered around them…”He will have doctors and plenty of meat to eat. He will live in peace.”

Sitting in a refugee camp, deep in the heart of Chad, where 200,000 people had been killed and millions had fled, where men were slaughtered and women were raped, war spilling across borders, the AIDS pandemic , and yet…

And yet in all of this chaos , here was Amouna, planning a future of unimaginable goodness for her child.

There are so many bad things in the world”, she said, “but I know good things will come for my child”.

She is a keeper of the flame. She sees something. Maybe she sees the promised land.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be a keeper of the flame. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to see the promised land. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to glimpse and even grasp the coming of God’s kingdom in the world.

The question for us, today, is a simple one: Do we see the promised land? When we say the words, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, do we really expect anything to happen?

Here we get into the realm of God’s dream for the world, God’s hope for our lives, which is so much more wonderful than we might imagine. The prophet Isaiah was given a glimpse of the kingdom: we would live in total communion with God. There would be no more weeping, no more death among children, the old will live long among us, we will build and plant and enjoy the fruit of our labors, the wolf and the lamb will live together in peace.

Sometimes we are given a glimpse of the kingdom. Now there are two important interpretations of these phrases, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. One is that God’s kingdom is going to come, whether we are ready for it or not. We know this because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we pray Thy kingdom come, we await the day when the master will fulfil the scripture of Matthew 25.

Thy will be done. God’s will for us is rooted in his love for us. When we pray for God’s will, that is not something that we dread. It is something that is a gift for us, if we will only receive it. But to receive God’s love, we must root out, overcome evil.

In the 1960s, in the deep south, a spiritual, a hymn, became an anthem. It was a testimony about keeping the flame alive. I would invite you, today, to hear it in a new way. It is God’s invitation, to us, to pray for the kingdom.

When you hear the words we shall overcome, imagine: I don’t grasp the kingdom just yet, but I glimpse it.

When you hear we shall live in peace, imagine: the wolf and the lamb don’t seem to be lying down just yet, but I glimpse it.

When you hear the Lord will see us through, imagine: God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and although I don’t have a grasp of it, I glimpse it.

Prayer makes a difference. When we close our eyes in prayer God helps us to see the promised land. It is the way we keep the flame alive. This prayer is the heart of our tribe. And it is the only way we will overcome all that separates us from God and from each other. And yes, it is the way we participate in the vision of John, in the Revelation, when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11)


Sources: Thanks to Wallace Alston for the his reference to the New York Times article, “Misery Loves Optimism in Africa”. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.

Friday, July 21, 2006


A few years ago I wrote a piece in the Winston-Salem Journal on pacifism, just war and holy war. It was at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, and I was trying to make sense of what was happening, trying to place it all in the framework of Christian history, borrowing from Roland Bainton's (of Yale) classic study, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Abingdon, 1960, I am sure long out of print). In the schema, pacifism is described as the dominant perspective of the early church, just war became a strategy (rationalization) post-Constantine, and holy war was the rationale for the crusades. If you can find a copy it is well worth reading.

In the twentieth century most sane people had felt ( following liberal enlightenment thinking) that holy war was no longer an option, with the only alternatives being pacifism or just war. I made the case that pacifism was and is an honored position in the Christian Church, and not only in the historic peace churches (Quaker, Mennonite, etc.). I then outlined the criteria for a just war (try googling just war criteria and see where it leads you). You will find these are the basic criteria:

A just war must have: 1) a just cause; 2) be waged by a legitimate authority; 3) formally declared; 4) fought with peaceful intentions; 5) used as a last resort; 6) have a likelihood of success; and 7) the means used must be proportionate to the ends.

Since the Iraqi war has not met these criteria, and since the current Israeli invasion of Lebanon does not either, we find that we have regressed to a position of holy war. Of course, many would say we have been forced there because of 9/11, the war on terror, etc. Sadly, when war is seen as holy--the good defeating the evil, soon any behaviors are justified---torture, years of unlawful detainment (the sacrifice of the idea of innocent until proven guilty), incredible financial cost and waste, ill-protected men and women sent into battle, illegal wiretapping. These practices are not denied; they are justifed as necessary in the midst of a holy war. And I will repeat a convictionI have shared on this blog in the past: those who serve in the military recognize and bear the true costs of war; those who have made the decisions to go to war are, in general, individuals who had avoided service in the military. If I am wrong here I am open to correction.

It may soon be the case that the only viable option in making sense of the world we are living in is pacifism. I recommend the voice of Elias Chacour, newly installed archbishop of the Melkite Church of the Galilee, and author of Blood Brothers and We Belong To The Land. Perhaps God will be speaking through him in the near future.

And so, let the Christians of the world, in the United States, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel, pray for peace. Let us read the Sermon on The Mount and ponder its teachings about love for enemies and the blessing that falls upon the peacemakers. Let us honor the sacrifices of the fallen and plead with God that these sacrifices become unnecessary. And let us finally remember that, in the teaching of Jesus, there is no holy war.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

and the living is easy

It is summer. We have come "down from the mountain", after two weeks of relaxation, waking up to to sixty degree weather, shifting from urban frenzy to mountain rural time. And now the shift back. It has been a good week back at work. Some committee meetings, some pastoral visits and a few phone calls to return, a capital campaign to complete, and some logistics to work out in relation to a mission project. I also finished a writing project, and received, in the mail, a copy of my latest book, published by Abingdon: Baptismal Services, Sermons and Prayers. I suggested in an email to my daughter, who is now in China, that if it sells like the DaVinci Code, I will establish a non-profit for her. Or maybe Oprah will read it and invite me onto her program to talk about creative ways to preach or celebrate baptism? Or maybe UNC Chapel Hill will choose it as the book that every entering freshman reads?

Don't could happen.

Regarding the world beyond myself, I am discouraged by the recent events in Israel and Lebanon, having planted my feet in the soil of each of those countries. Last summer our church hosted a videoconference on peace in the middle eas, with Father Hesburgh and Leighton Ford and others speaking, including local rabbis and imans. But there is little desire for peace among Israeli leadership, or the Iranians, or the Bush Adminstration, for that matter.

I am at work on a series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer. It strikes me as odd that we discuss worship in terms of traditional and contemporary (matters of style) rather than focusing on the content---how do we pray, why not pray as Jesus taught us, etc. Imagine a child attending worship all of his or her life, and learning to pray the Lord's Prayer. Imagine that he or she learns the meaning of the words, over time. And then imagine that the prayer begins to shape his or her life: there is attention to God's will, a reminder that God provides, a command to forgive, etc. Would that not be a worthy outcome from having spent time sitting in worship services? You can check out these sermons/meditations as they emerge, right here on the blog. For further reading on the Lord's Prayer, I suggest recent books by N.T. Wright, Roberta Bondi, and the tag team of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas.

Tonight I am going to see the Charlotte Knights (Triple A) with my friend Frank. Later in the summer I plan to see the Greensboro Grasshoppers (A), and who knows, maybe I will catch the Asheville Tourists and the Greenville (SC) Drive. It could happen. A baseball summer. There are worse ways to pass the time.

Not much heavy content in this blog, I realize, nothing profound. I am currently listening to Willie Nelson's You Don't Know Me. Now that is both heavy and profound. I recommend it. In fact, go get it now.

In the meantime, stay cool. Head for the mountains, if you can. Altitude affects attitude.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

what i did on my summer vacation

woke up several mornings to 60 degree mountain weather...heard will willimon preach twice...saw the braves defeat the reds, 4-1, Smoltz preaching eight innings and giving up only one run...spent some time in Malaprops in asheville (extraordinary bookstore, look for a future link)...completed several gold level sudokus in the asheville citizen times (they shrewdly place the sudoku in the classified section)...mowed the grass at our mountain cabin twice (it takes about ten minutes)...ate at the Varsity in north atlanta with my brother...ate at Butts on The Creek in Maggie Valley...walked around Lake Junaluska (2.5 miles) once or twice each day...had several meals and conversations with good two really fine novels: Saints At The River by Ron Rash, and The River Why by David James Duncan...saw the Lake Junaluska parade on the 4th, and the fireworks over the lake that evening...spent very little time in front of computer or television screens...took our younger daughter to volleyball camp at Western Carolina University...listened to Terri Gross interview Darrell Scott on Fresh Air...found an abandoned piece of furniture that my wife is restoring...went in Mast General Store and Whitman's Bakery in Waynesville...saw the season premiere of Monk (I give it five stars*****)...talked by phone with our older daughter who is in a really helpful book on spiritual disciplines, The Sacred Way, by Tony Jones...took a few the first forty Psalms---I was struck with the recurring theme of God's "face"...had very brief conversations with three or four bishops, in passing...gave thanks for faithful staff and lay leaders keeping the church going in my absence...touched the baptismal font in the memorial chapel at junaluska, where our older daughter was baptized...listened to Willie Nelson's new cd, You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (highly recommended)...realized how fortunate/blessed I am to be at Providence.