Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A few postings of our own experiences, and some reading and listening that has inspired me lately: a description of our daughter's Burch Fellowship; my recent piece in UM Nexus on Earth Day; an excellent article in The New Yorker on aging; a really fine blog by Donna Claycomb on marriage, divorce and homosexuality; a conversation between Bela Fleck and Chick Corea from NPR's Talk of The Nation; a link to a writer's workshop that I will lead at Lake Junaluska in October (a beautiful time to be in the mountains of Western North Carolina); another link to a superb restaurant in Statesville, North Carolina, where we celebrated our younger daughter's 18th birthday; a ministry study of which I have been a part in our denomination is going to ask for an additional four years before concluding its work; and a mission agency with whom I serve (Encounter With Christ In Latin America and the Carribean) is featured.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

God knows what you need (psalm 23)

A famous preacher, William Sloane Coffin, once noted that just as there is finally only one hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, there is only one Psalm, the 23rd. Perhaps you would choose a different hymn, but most likely the Psalm that is on the hearts and lips of most believers is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is My Shepherd”. Why does this Psalm speak to us, why do its words go down into the deepest places in our hearts, why does it continue to sing of God’s presence to us? I am not sure, but I know that there is a power in this psalm. It is one of the passages of scripture that is most often read at memorial services, and most often it can be read, recited and shared by those present from memory. There is something about this brief writing that resonates within us, at our time of greatest need. It is profound.

But the 23rd Psalm speaks of more than death; it also speaks of life, and especially of the One who is the Lord of life, the Good Shepherd (John 10). It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd”. God provides for us. We know this. But sometimes we forget. Those who prayed these psalms remembered their history: in forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel lacked nothing. God provided enough each day for that day.

Do we know what life will be like tomorrow? No. But we know that there are provisions for today. The Lord, our shepherd, will see to that. Scholars teach us that the term shepherd was also often a reference to royalty. The rod and the staff were the signs of office, and the title “shepherd” had associations with the Lord’s leading and guiding Israel through the wilderness. Rulers, kings are supposed to shepherd and care for their people. Because the Lord is our shepherd, we have all that we need. God provides.

I will never forget an experience that occurred shortly before I left home for seminary. I had finished college, and I was working several jobs: I taught guitar, I delivered flowers, I worked in a sheet metal shop, running a drill press. I did a little bit of everything. But I just did not see how I was going to have the money to get started in school. I mentioned the possibility of delaying seminary to the mother of one of my guitar students and she said “Oh no, don’t put it off, you will never go”.

One day one of my cousins, who was a couple of years older than me, asked if I wanted to have lunch. I said sure. I wondered what this would be all about.

He picked me up from work and off we went. On the way be said he needed to stop by the bank. He made a withdrawal, put it into an envelope and gave it to me. “This is for your expenses”, he said. It happened to be enough for the first semester’s tuition. He did not know that. But I knew that God had provided, through him. The first great affirmation: God provides for us.

There is a second one: Thou art with me. We need to know that we are not alone in this life’s journey. It helps to sense that someone walks beside us, even, at times, in the words of the familiar “footprints in the sand” saying, that someone carries us. And this psalm voices that truth. Do you hear it? It teaches us that:

Even in the dangerous places, we are not alone

Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone

Even as we are being carted into surgery, we are not alone

Even as we are taking that long walk to the graveside, we are not alone

Even as we watch the slow deterioration of a loved one’s faculties, we are not alone

Even as we face economic uncertainty, we are not alone

Even as we get used to life in a new place, we are not alone.

We can pray with Christians and Jews throughout the ages: Thou art with me.

A third affirmation: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Here we see a shift in the psalm: God is no longer the shepherd to the sheep. God is now the Host, and we are the guests. Those hearing and praying this psalm would have known about the desert rule of hospitality. If I were in danger, and enemies were pursuing me, I would come to your door, and according to the desert rule of hospitality, you would be required to take me in for two nights and a day in between, and my enemies would have to stay outside the circle of light cast by the fire.

The Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. The Lord provides a place of safety. A few years ago I was meeting with a group of people and we were struggling with the meaning and mission of the church of Jesus, and our congregation in particular. One of the words that came to the surface by a couple of those present was the word “safety”. I didn’t quite grasp the meaning at first. But people verbalized it: the church needs to be a safe place. And that is one of the meanings of the word “Sanctuary”.

People are looking for sanctuary. They are looking for a community that embodies the qualities of the Shepherd who watches over, protects, provides for, creates a safe place for those under his care. Providence works hard and makes no apologies for being a safe place for children. In years past, the Christian witness has been compromised because the larger church has not always been a safe place for children and youth. People instinctively realize that when God is with us, we are in a safe place, we are in a sanctuary.

A fourth and final affirmation: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. The 23rd Psalm is a psalm about our destiny. There is a truism about small groups that says that we feel most confident and least anxious when we know where we are going. The psalmist cries out: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. Now the “house of the Lord” has three meanings: for those who originally prayed this psalm, it meant the temple, in Jerusalem. I have stood at the wall of that temple. It is an amazing place.

Most of us will never journey to the temple in Jerusalem, but we are drawn to some other holy place. Shortly after arriving at Providence I was waiting for a wedding rehearsal to begin one Friday evening, I had only been here a few weeks, and one of the directors was orienting me, and along the way she paused and looked around the sanctuary, and spoke of her children, and her parents, and what the church meant to her, what worship meant to her, what music meant to her, and then she said, “this is home”.

But “house of the Lord” carries an additional meaning for the Christian who prays it: God has a destiny for us, echoed in the words of Jesus, “I go to prepare a place for you” (see John 14. 1-3). The shepherd guides us safely to a home not made with hands, whose builder and maker is God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land that he had been promised…For he looked to that city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11. 8-10).

What does this Psalm say to us, this morning? Some of us listen to the psalm and we are wondering about how we are going to find the resources—material, spiritual, financial, psychological—to make it through the next week. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Some of us listen to the psalm, and we sense that we are all alone in the world. Maybe we feel all alone in our homes, all alone in our struggles, without a sense that we truly matter to any other person. And if we find ourselves in that place we can believe the good news: Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Some of us are gripped by a fear that will not go away, and we need to draw a circle around ourselves or our families or those we love that will keep out violence or drugs or danger or stress. If we find ourselves in this place we can believe the good news: Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.

And some of us are anxious about the future, and we have lived long enough to know that there is more to life than this life, that heaven is a reality for which we pray and to which we find ourselves being drawn. And if we discover ourselves in this place, we can believe the good news: I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in this life’ s journey, God can speak to you through this psalm. Let’s pray it together.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. AMEN.

Sources: William Sloane Coffin, “The Twenty Third Psalm”, Sermons from Riverside Church, November 11, 1979; James Luther Mays, Psalms (Interpretation Series).

Friday, May 18, 2007

birthday parties, films, the troops and falwell

Today is our younger daughter Abby's 18th birthday. Happy birthday, Abby! We had the family meal on Wednesday, at a superb restaurant in Statesville, North Carolina (Mayo's). She had the party/meal with friends (15 of them) last night. And tonight she took her birthday balloon to the spring youth retreat. Abby has successfully turned her birthday into the great three days!

Our older daughter and I attended a Carolinas Showcase Filmmakers Evening at the Light Factory in Charlotte last night. We saw approximately two hours of short films, ranging from three minutes to fifteen. My favorite was one made here in Charlotte, entitled The Great Pumpkin Wall. It was about ritual, friendships, community, having fun, and having a hopeful vision. I enjoy attending events like this on occasion, in part because of the amazing creativity that people invest in their projects. And I often consider how I can follow their examples in the weekly creation of the sermon.

My insight today, about the war. Based on my conversations with a number of military families, and their contact with their loved ones serving in the military, I think the message most of them want to be sent to them is that 1) there is a timeline to end the war and 2) there should be benchmarks to show progress.

Jerry Falwell died this week. He was my brother in Christ, and we probably shared more Christian beliefs--including the main one, the bodily resurrection of Jesus--- than he might have imagined, not that he would have been interested, and not that he would have necessarily included me in the One Body. Falwell did have a poisonous effect on American political life, and as a fundamentalist he shared many of the same traits that fundamentalists of other religious traditions espouse: a hardened edge toward those who are different, an unwillingness to learn from others, and a sharp critique that generalizes and stereotypes people into categories, with an absence of humility or accountability to others.

Having lived between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, Virginia, I understand something of Falwell's vision of Liberty University, and assume that a part of that institution's birth was the exclusion of his constituency from the old schools of that area (William and Mary, UVa, Hampton-Sydney, Randolph Macon, Sweetbriar).
I asked the noted journalist Edwin Yoder of the Washington Post about this one time, and he did not disagree.

Sadly, Falwell assumed an almost total identification of Christian identity with conservative political affiliation. That he gave his support to a presidential candidate who had little interest in attending church, and not the other candidate, who has taught Sunday School every Sunday for the past few decades, is an indication that the matter might be more political than religious, more Caesar than Christ. Readers of this blog will know that I am all for Christian participation in politics, but I am convinced that following Jesus puts at us odds, at times, with views on both sides of the aisle.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

the conversion of peter and paul (john 21; acts 9)

In the common lectionary, the church in its wisdom has matched two stories that give us insight into two of the most prominent of the early Christians, Peter and Paul. It is an understatement to say that Peter and Paul have had an enormous influence upon Christians throughout the world, from the formation of the Roman Catholic Church to the translation of the gospel to into almost every language and culture to the role of women in leadership.

Peter and Paul are both exemplary and flawed: we look up to them as role models in the faith, and yet we have our issues with them. In the New Testament---and most of the New Testament is shaped by these two apostles---Peter and Paul are portrayed as very human figures. Nothing is glossed over. They are real, flesh and blood people, just like us.

This morning we will reflect on two passages that are pivotal for Peter and Paul. You might describe these as their conversion experiences, or their call experiences. Within the two passages there are similarities and there are differences. And my hope is that within these two passages we will discover something about ourselves, about our own need for conversion, about our own callings.

First Peter. Jesus has appeared on the beach to the disciples, after the resurrection. They share a meal, in this case breakfast, bread and fish. There is rich symbolism here: we think of the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus’ own statement that he is the bread of life, and of his call to fish for men and women.

After the meal, Jesus and Peter are in conversation. Jesus asks Peter the same question, three times: “Do you love me?” And three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, I love you”. And then three times Jesus gives a command: “feed my sheep”. Many in the early Christian community heard in the three questions and three responses an echo of the three denials of Christ by Peter at his arrest. In fact, many interpreters see John 21 as the early church’s response to the question “what happened to Peter, how was Peter restored?” The one who denied that he knew Christ, who fled when it became too difficult and dangerous and disturbing, is now in a face-to-face conversation with Jesus.

It is a conversation that has to do with conversion and call. The conversion is about what Jesus wants Peter to do, about what will be required of Peter. The one who said “I am the good shepherd” is now calling upon Peter to feed his sheep, to care for the Christian community, to love others, Jesus had said at another meal, as I have loved you. And yet this caring will be costly. Peter will stretch out his arms, in suffering, and the one who is the leader will be led to places that he would rather not go. The way of the cross, for Jesus, will become the way of the cross, for Peter. After this, Jesus says simply, “follow me”.

We shift our focus now from Peter to Paul, although early in the story his name is Saul. Saul is on the way to Syria, on the Damascus Road. Saul was prominent among the persecutors of the earliest Christians. Luke tells us that he was present when Stephen is martyred. Along the way Saul is struck by lightning, he is blinded, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul responds, “who are you, Lord?” The response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”.

This incident is so important that it is told three different times in the book of Acts, like a family story that we keep repeating, because everything turns on it.

God uses Ananias to interpret what is happening for Paul. Ananias receives a message, an impulse from God that he should go to Saul, and lay hands on him, so that he might receive his sight. Saul’s immediate response is understandable: “Lord, how can I reach out to this person? He is a threat to us. He has been complicit in the murder of our people”.

We sometimes feel an impulse to reach out to people, beyond the church, don’t we? Maybe to invite them to be a part of what God is doing in this church? Perhaps to be a part of a small group, or to attend a worship service? And sometimes we are held back. What keeps us from reaching out: “He might be offended. She might not respond. He is too busy. She might reject me”. We can think of a number of reasons for not getting involved in someone else’s life, even when we feel an impulse to do so.

Ananias has a wonderful excuse: Saul is the enemy and he is dangerous. But God says, simply, “Go, for he will be my instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and, by the way, he will experience great suffering along the way”. The way of the cross for Jesus, will become the way of the cross for Paul.

And so Ananias listens and responds, he intervenes, he goes to Saul. And watch what happens. He goes into the house of Saul, he lays hands on him, and before a word is spoken he says, “Brother Saul”.

He includes Saul as his brother before Saul ever says a word. That is evangelism. We sometimes think evangelism is about how the other person will respond, but it really begins with us. What if we imagined that the person we are being sent to is already our brother or our sister. Saul is radically different from Ananias, and yet Ananias already knows that he is his brother in Christ. He is already a part of the family.

And so Saul’s sight is restored, he was blind but now he sees. He is baptized, he eats, he regains his strength.

These are the formative experiences of conversion and call in the lives of Peter and Paul. To Peter, conversion is coming face to face with the compassionate shepherd who loves him. For Paul, conversion is a blinding flash of insight, seeing the whole world in a new way. For Peter, conversion is a reminder of much that he had been taught over a period of time. For Paul, conversion is a radically new orientation in life.

For Peter, call is all about becoming more compassionate, sharing the love of God with those in the household of faith. For Paul, call is all about going into the world, sharing the grace of God with those who are outside the household of faith. Peter is the shepherd. Paul is the evangelist. Peter’s focus is internal. Paul’s focus is external. Later, in Acts 15 but also in Galatians, their two callings sometimes come into conflict. They each meet the risen Lord, but their experiences of conversion and call are very different; very real, but very different.

Now what does all of this mean for us?

Most of us do not encounter a flash of lightning in the sky, or hear an audible voice, and yet conversions still happen. And so the question, in the season of Easter, is simply about our own experience of the risen Christ, and our own sense of where he is calling us.

A friend shared this image with me recently. An acquaintance of his loved working with old cars, and was obsessed with one in particular, a Mustang. He purchased the Mustang, and began the laborious process of transforming it into its original condition. There were really two steps in the process: first, to rescue the car, and then to restore the car. The restoration was an involved process, because it included scraping away all of the rust, before the painting could begin.

In Jesus Christ, we have been rescued. God does not give up on Peter, or Paul, or you or me. The cross is the sign of God’s desire to rescue us, even when our pasts haunt us, even when we have been at odds with all that God represents. But there is more than rescue. There is also restoration. Every person is created in the image of God, in the image of a God who is love, in the image of a God who loves the world so much that he gave his son. This is slow and laborious process of restoration. It is the painful conversation between Peter and Jesus, or the blinding reorientation of Paul on the road to Damascus.

Conversion is not watching a television program, or hearing a preacher, and then settling it all, in a few minutes, and then moving on. Conversion is a lifelong process of being restored into a relationship with the One who created us in the first place. And a part of that conversion is the call to give our lives for some purpose, and here again call takes different forms.

For Peter, the call is to take care of the sheep. For Paul, the call is to share the gospel with the gentiles. What is your call? In our congregation, the call takes a diversity of expressions, and that is the beauty of the Christian community. One is called to sing. One is called to be a Stephen Minister. One is called to give medical care in Haiti. One is called to spend the night with the homeless. One is called to befriend a middle school boy or girl. One is called to teach. One is called to make the church more welcoming to gays and lesbians. One is called to share the catechism that he learned as a child with confirmands. One is called to teach the Bible in prison. One is called to practice hospitality to a family in grief. One is called to support the church financially. One is called to love adults with disabilities. One is called to be an advocate with people suffering with MS. One is called to befriend foreign missionaries.

I am sharing, in these moments, calls I have witnessed with my own eyes, in this congregation. I want you to reflect on God’s call in your life, this morning. A few comments about call: God always calls imperfect people, like Peter and Paul, like you and me. The way of the cross for Jesus will become the way of the cross for you and me. Call will at times involve suffering. Call will lead us to places we had not imagined ourselves going. And our callings will take different forms, as different as our life stories.

I want to very briefly share some of my own experience of conversion and call. It begins in the midst of a difficult adolescence, partly due to changes within our family, partly the result of racial turmoil in our deep south community, partly due to normal teenage confusion. There were changes in our family, changes in the schools (due to integration and busing), and changes in my home church, which always seemed to be in some kind of crisis. In those years everything that was settled became unsettled. It is the grace of God that I survived those years. I was a pretty self-absorbed teenager, and I did not have the benefit of a youth ministry like the one that is led by Teresa and others here at Providence.

As I began college, I joined a fraternity. In short, life got pretty excessive, as you might imagine. At some point I realized that all of this was not leading to a good place, and I was not becoming a person that I liked very much, although I did not give it a great deal of deep thought. And so I resigned from the fraternity, as quietly as possible.

For some reason I found my way to a campus ministry group, and over time something began to happen. I was an outsider, at first, but along the way this became a home. Later I talked about all of this with the pastor of my church, whom I had never really known, and just the idea of sitting down and talking with a preacher was something I had never imagined myself doing! No audible voices, no blinding flashes of light, but it was a turning point. I embraced this faith as my own. Something had been salvaged.

In time the conversion became a call. I began to try to integrate what this meant in my own life. My studies shifted from biology to psychology to theology. And I began to explore the call: what would I do with my life? I have lived long enough to be able to look back on some of it all, and gain a perspective. I can only say that, for me, the call has been and is to the church, and to this church.

There is much about life in the church that you and I cannot control. There are no set office hours, we don’t go home at 5, I don’t give people grades. We relate to anyone who walks through the doors. It is somewhat unpredictable. The local church is not perfect, but the local church is real, and it is where Christ is. And as surely as Peter has a call and Paul has a call, this is my call. It is sometimes like a salvaged car, and there is a lot of rust to be scraped away, but at times the light shines through, and God’s grace is visible.

Now, I want you to think about your own conversion. Where has God shown up in your life story? When did you feel closest to Christ? And I want you to think about your call. What shape will your own calling take? What are you doing with your life?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

golf, for those who don't care about golf

Charlotte is hosting the Wachovia Cup this weekend, which is a major golf tournament----27 of the top golfers in the world participate, including Tiger Woods. You don't have to care anything about golf to know about Tiger Woods, who has almost single-handedly broken the color barrier in the mostly all white and male pastime. The weather here has been wet and cold, not ideal for golf, but that doesn't keep anyone away---it never rains on a golf course.

I had volunteered in years past in this tournament, usually in concessions, which means I sell beer (two bottles at a time---men have two hands) to guys, beginning at 9:30 a.m. You might think coffee would be the beverage of choice on a golf course in cold weather, but no, it is miller lite. Those beverages go well with hot dogs, and of course, all of this is backdrop to the event at hand--professional golf.

It really is mostly about Tiger. Jack (from Haiti) and I went out to watch today. We live only a couple of miles from Quail Hollow, and so we parked in a friend's yard and hiked over to the course. No cell phones are allowed on the course--I like this rule, but of course, some break the rules anyway. Golfers require quiet when they are driving, chipping or putting. They are disciplined and focused people, and Tiger is more disciplined and focused than most. The crowds find Tiger and follow him, and that is what we did, for several holes. As I write this, he appears on the verge of winning his first Wachovia Cup. In the middle of the afternoon we hiked out, found our car, drove home, and I planted myself in an easy chair, where I drank a huge glass of icewater, turned the ceiling fan on high, and watched it all on television.

I am not a great fan of golf, having been much more interested in tennis along the way. But Tiger is an icon, like Michael Jordan, Oprah or Bono, and to see him up close and personal (and to share that experience with Jack) was fun.

And it was, and is, a beautiful day.

Friday, May 04, 2007

turn and face the change

We are sliding into May, and I am busy, but not as busy as our younger daughter, who is (I hope) graduating from high school in a month. She was in her school's production of Wizard of Oz, went to New York City with her school's chamber choir (they sang at Riverside Church), went on a spring break trip to Daytona (I prefer not to know alot about that), and has volunteered this week at the Wachovia Cup golf tournament. Most of this stuff is school approved, even encouraged, which means she is not penalized for missing classes but still has to make up the work. I sometimes think I am busy, but my schedule is nothing like hers!

Yesterday, she and I drove down to Wilmington. She finally chose UNCW to continue her education, among a really good group of schools, but I think she will be very happy. It appears to be a great place, and the students there seem to love it.

Early in the week I led a retreat for all first year clergy in our annual conference. It is a required experience for them, and it is a retreat that I led for several years, until I became a member (and later chair) of our board of ordained ministry. We focused mostly on transitional issues, on themes of wilderness, sabbath, and rest, on our need for disciplines and community. The setting, Camp Shepherd (or, as my friend Jim from Winston-Salem used to call it, Camp Mt. St. Shepherd) was relaxing, although a fairly large snake, and it was not a black snake, was basking in the cool of the day when I first entered my cabin. My daughter reminded me that I should be glad I have never seen the movie Snakes on A Plane. For a few years I led a number of retreats, and over time scaled back on all of that, but I enjoyed this. I have a real heart for people making the transition from school to work, negotiating their identity and trying to maintain some sanity in the midst of it all. As David Bowie sang, "turn and face the change".

Which I guess is what is going on with our daughter's graduation from high school, anticipating entrance into college at a school four hours away. I am not the young minister anymore, the words of seminary professors dancing in my head, dreams of yet one more degree rolling around in my conciousness. I am more than half way through the journey, and while it has been blessed and for the most part it has been grace, it is also all about change, and the longer I live, the less adaptive I am to change. I prefer to sleep in environments where there are no snakes lurking around. Maybe I myself need some kind of retreat, where I can negotiate my own identity and maintain some of my own sanity.