Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Our summer vacation ended last Thursday afternoon. Pam and I came back from the mountains with a friend to participate in the memorial service for Bill. Bill and Alice had been the co-founders of the Haiti Mission of Providence, a story that began with Bill's donation of a boat to the United Methodist Church's Board of Global Ministries. They sailed the boat to Haiti, and began a fishing program that met with utter failure. Along the way they discovered a need for medical mission among the underserved in northern Haiti. Alice went back to school and became a registered nurse. All of this was a good 27 years ago. In retirement they moved to Gloucester, Va. Since, hundreds and hundreds have made the journey to Cap Haitien, thousands of Haitians have received medical care, a full time staff of dedicated Haitians help the mission to function, and our folks go four times a year; I usually make the trip in January. You can learn more about Haiti in one of the links to the right. It was an honor to participate in Bill's service.


Most of our vacation in the mountains was dedicated to a renovation project, which my wife and two very good friends were able to complete that last weekend. There is something satisfying about doing something that involves a finished product, unlike ministry which is really ongoing and always changing to some extent (who can really say that an act of ministry is ever really finished?).


I preached on faith and globalization this past Sunday. The sermon should be posted soon at the PUMC website (link to the right). Some of initial feedback included 1) comments from those who appreciated the sermon 2) some who felt it was a bit theologically exclusive and 3) some who might have viewed the issue of immigration differently. I am grateful to the folks at Providence who listen pretty closely to what is said in the sermon, and who respond, sometimes in ways that surprise me.


I watched signficant portions of the three Godfather movies over this past weekend. These are truly remarkable films, and each time I see them I am convinced that Francis Ford Coppola is a genius. My favorite: Godfather II. This time I found myself focusing on 1) the role of the church and its ritual and 2) the opening and closing of doors (what is revealed and what is hidden).


I am currently reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, who wrote River Town. Oracle Bones is a book about China (at this moment our older daughter is in Beijing), and it conveys the interplay between ancient and modern in that country, and some of the complexity of a really vast space on our planet. An insight from tonight's reading: the two primary faiths of China are materialism and nationalism (page 124)....Ponder that for a moment. Also, an interesting section on the destruction of hutongs, small courtyard homes, some of them hundreds of years old. Hessler, who writes for The New Yorker, had a fascinating piece recently in that publication on the Great Wall.


While on vacation in Waynesville I stopped in on the town's annual library sale, and purchased an almost new copy of the Book of Common Prayer for $1. I had somehow given my copy away or misplaced it a few years ago. I have been drawn back to the service of morning prayer (with the reading of a psalm), and to the service of committal for memorial services we have held the past few days. I am going to attempt to stay with it, in the hopes that it will provide me with some much needed structure in my spiritual life.


With the wish that you are experiencing renewal and rest this summer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

summer slackness

Please excuse my summer slackness regarding this blog. This is due in part to some vacation, in part to a couple of major developments in our church, in part to a couple of completed writing assignments, and in part to some continuing education. Here are a few of the high spots of my summer.

1. I saw the Atlanta Braves play on Memorial Day weekend with our older daughter, Liz. The Phillies pounded the Braves that day, 15-6, but it was fun. This was on the way home from visiting my mom in Georgia.

2. Annual Conference was a nice time to see friends, including many who came to our place for lunch. I was elected to the next General Conference (I am grateful) and will serve on the Global Ministries legislative committee.

3. Pam and I traveled to Montebello, near Montreal, to attend the National Conference of the Center of Theological Inquiry. Among the presenters were Stanley Hauerwas and Robert Jenson. It was also a reunion among a number of pastor friends from Canada, Maine, California and other places. We came back through Vermont, touring the Ben and Jerry's factory.

4. I have been preaching a series of sermons on Faith and Culture: the first on Faith and Politics, the second Faith and Technology, and a third one, coming next week, on Faith and Globalization. These sermons can be accessed on the Providence UMC website (see the link on the right panel of this blog).

5. I had a very good experience taping two sermons for Day One/Protestant Hour with Peter Wallace in Atlanta, who is a wonderful human being. These will be broadcast in late September and early October.

6. While I was there I attended another Braves game with our younger daughter, Abby. The Braves "hammered" the Pirates, 9-1. It was a thrill.

7. I have been at Lake Junaluska for a couple of weeks, and have had wonderful conversations, in passing, with some amazing leaders in our church---Richard Wilke, Hal Brady, Joe Hale, and a couple of folks who might prefer to remain anonymous.

8. We have been engaged in a pretty major renovation project at our mountain cabin, that has included sheetrock, framing, laying tile, and rearranging an entrance to a bathroom. Thank you, Bill. We owe you.

9. I read Doug Marlette's recent novel, Magic Time. I have mourned his passing, and wrote about him in our most recent church newsletter, The Voice. If you don't know who Doug Marlette is, shame on you, but also bless your heart.

10. The vacation ends very soon. Some wonderful things are coming together in our church, even as several beloved members are in the midst of health crisis.

11. I have a couple of pieces in the current Christian Century on the lectionary gospels for the first two Sundays in August. You can access the magazine via the link to the right.

12. Jack has been in Haiti this summer, Liz was been in Toyko, Abby has been in and out of youth mission trips and retreats, I have been here, there and everywhere. The change of scenery has been needed, but it will also be nice to get back to the routine.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

you will receive power (luke 24)

Jesus has rejoined the disciples in the upper room. They still could not quite believe what was happening to them, but there he was: eating with them, showing them, his hands and feet, teaching them. They were all together, with the Risen Christ, in the upper room. What an experience that must have been?

This morning I want to focus on the upper room experience of the disciples, and about our own need for an upper room experience. When we use the phrase “upper room”, we often refer to a time of nearness to God. We might call it a “spiritual high”. We need these experiences if our faith is going to grow. I want to look closely at what happened in the upper room, where Jesus and the disciples had gathered.

The first thing Jesus does in the upper room is to show the disciples his wounds. “Look at my hands and feet. It is I, myself”, Jesus says to them. He shows them the nail prints and the scars. Jesus does not pretend that the scandal of the cross never happened. He does not triumphantly speak of overcoming the cross. He simply shows his wounds to his friends. It is a moment of great vulnerability.

This is a simple and yet amazing act of friendship. And here Jesus models something for us. The fellowship of the church is where we are able to share our sorrows, our pain, our wounds. My wife, Pam attended Wake Forest University as an undergraduate. Four young women were suitemates together, and they got to know each other pretty well. One of Pam’s suitemates was a young woman named Meg Scott . Meg was the daughter and granddaughter of former governors of North Carolina. Pam and I met and married a few years later, and only rarely crossed paths with her college friends. I remember her as a nice person, and enjoying talking with Meg and her husband over dinner one evening. At that time she was an assistant attorney general, and she would later be elected commissioner of agriculture.

A few years ago Meg Scott Phipps was convicted of several charges related to political corruption, and she was sentenced to four years in prison. She shared a 7 by 10 living space with drug dealers, one of her roommates attempted suicide, and her children grew up without her. Two months ago she was released, having served over three years of the term. And now Meg begins a new life, as director of Christian education at her home church in Haw River, North Carolina.

It would be easy for a person in this circumstance to shut down, to pretend, to put a political spin on it, or to blame others. In a Christmas letter one year Meg wrote to her friends: “God has put me in prison for a purpose, to remember from where my strengths come and it is not from politics, an office or a powerful job. It’s my husband and my family and my faith”.

Jesus gathers with the disciples and he shows them his wounds. The second action of Jesus: he eats. “Can you give me some food?” he asks. Now Jesus’ eating with the disciples had several meanings. First, he was hungry. He had bodily needs, just as we do. Second, Jesus was sharing a meal with the disciples as he had done on the night when he had been betrayed. But Jesus was also saying something else. He was reminding us that the fellowship of believers is the place we come to be nourished…we come for food, at times the food placed before us at a meal, at times spiritual food.

Bruce Rigdon is a friend whose ministry has included time as a church historian, a narrator of films for ABC and NBC on Christianity in Russia and a seminary presidency. Later in his life he was called to the pastorate of a church near Detroit, in Grosse Point, Michigan. During that pastorate he received a call from his mother one day.

“Now that you are real minister (!)”, she said, implying that nothing he had done before had been real ministry, “now that you are real minister, I am going to give you one piece of advice” (remember the sermon last week, on the wisdom of women (!). He wondered what could be so important.

She said, “don’t mess with the potluck dinners”. And so, being the good son, Bruce asked her, why is that the one piece of advice you would give me. She said, “I grew up in a family, and had meals with my mother and father. As a young woman I married your father, and we had meals together, and then you came along, and there were three of us, and then you went off to school, and there were two of us again, but we had meals together, and then five years ago he passed…I had never eaten meals alone, in my life, I had gone from my parents home to the home with my husband…do you know what it is like to eat almost every meal alone?” There was a silence.

“Don’t mess with the potluck dinners”!

Something profound happens when the church gathers for a fellowship meal, when Sunday School classes have picnics, when Disciple classes share a closing dinner, when the choir gathers to eat lobster, but also when we prepare a meal for those staying overnight in Room In The Inn, when we take sandwiches to the night shelter, when we deliver meals on wheels, but also whenever two friends break bread together. Jesus came to the disciples and said, “I’m hungry—can you give me some food”.

It is a sign of relationship. I love the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God that may any day be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let them declare, it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.

He shows them his wounds. He eats with them. And then, when his stomach is filled, he begins to teach them. This is the third action of Jesus. He opens their minds to understand the scriptures.

There is something about this book that enlarges our world and through the witnesses in these pages God brings into our imagination and conciousness people of every nation and tongue, and because God hears their cries we hear their cries, and because God has woven them into his story they also become a part of our stories, and because they are bound for the promised
land, because they are marching to Zion, we walk side by side.

There is a stereotype about the Bible. The Bible is not a narrow, parochial book. The Bible is a vast world infused with the glory of God and the love of God for all people: a light to the nations, to the end of the earth. It is a book we will never master, never fully comprehend.

He opened their minds to understand the scripture. And this had a great deal to do with the story of Israel, the passage from slavery to freedom, and His own story of suffering and death and resurrection, and then he opened their minds to the possibility that this was their story.

We do have a problem with the Bible in our culture. Fundamentalists value the Bible, but they want to control the interpretation of it. At times they squeeze it so tightly that they suffocate the life that is in it!

Liberals see the Bible as a book that needs to be updated, or they want to take out some of the portions that don’t fit their categories. They both miss the point. The Bible creates a world that we get to roam around in our entire lives, and we will never fully comprehend the depths of it.

One of the Fathers of the early church said, “scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”

He shows them his wounds. He eats with them. He opens their minds to understand the scriptures. And then he says to them, stay here, be patient. Wait for the holy spirit. Most of us are not very patient people. We are not very good at waiting.

The motto of our pace of life could be “ready, fire, aim”. And yet we find ourselves, at times, waiting, waiting for important things to happen. The senior highs are on retreat this weekend, so we can talk about them! They are ready to be out of school. Some of us parents are ready for them to graduate, or to become adults. When we are waiting, we are in the between times, between being in school and out of school, or moving and setting into a new place, or having the medical test and hearing the diagnosis. We wait, but most of us are not very good at waiting.

Jesus says, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. There is alot of activity in the Book of Acts, teachings, healings, growth, conversions, the expansion of the gospel to the ends of the earth. But it all happens because a group of people waited, with Jesus, in the upper room, until they had been clothed with power from on high.

We are in the days between Ascension and Pentecost. The church has set aside this time as one of waiting, of patience, we don't have closure on the whole experience, but we know that something is about to happen.

It is an interim time, and we are focused on the "not yet". What do we do, in the meantime? We gather together, we stay close to one another, we listen to Jesus. And what does that look like? Well, it looks like showing our wounds, and eating together, and opening our minds to the scriptures, and waiting, patiently, for some gift that we are about to receive.

It is, even in a time “not yet” time, a time of waiting, a glimpse of the kingdom, a foretaste of glory divine. He shows them his wounds---mourning and crying and pain will be no more. He is hungry, he eats with them---they will come from the north and the south and the east and the west to feast together at his table. He opens their mind to understand the scriptures---now I know in part, then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.In the meantime, we wait for the gift.

What is the gift? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”. And yet let us be clear that the source of the power is the upper room, the energy for life flows from the presence of the living Jesus, who shows them his wounds, who breaks bread with them, who opens their minds to understand the scriptures, the living Jesus who says, “be patient, wait, something is about to happen”.

Sources: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.