Monday, September 29, 2008

passionate worship (isaiah 6)

Robert Benson tells the story of growing up next to his father’s father, who lived next door to him. Or he writes, “we lived next door to him. He got there first. Not only did we live on the same piece of property. We went to the same church. It was the church his father had helped to start, the church where my father grew up, the church where my folks got married, and the church where my grandfather was the songleader.”

About once a month his grandfather and grandmother would take the whole family out to lunch on Sunday. This was always fun, with the exception of one bad part, and that was question time. Benson remembers that it was always the same question, and he always dreaded it. His grandfather would cock his head back and look straight at him. “Boy”, he would then say, “what did you get out of the service today?” Benson remembers:

“I was a teenager, and most Sundays what I got out of the service from up in the balcony where I sat with all my friends was very different from what he got out of the service up on the chancel in the song leader’s chair…In about eight years of Sunday lunches, I do not think I ever got the right answer, not as far as he was concerned. It bugged me to death. I was one of those very eager and likely annoying kids who sat in the front row in school and who always had their hand up from Monday through Friday because they knew the right answer to the teacher’s question. It made me crazy not to know the right answer when my grandfather asked me the Sunday question”.

Years later Benson was having a conversation with a pastor friend of a far more liturgical church than the one he had been raised in. The pastor was talking about Bill, a man in the church who was complaining about so much liturgy in the service. It was more ritual and formality than he was used to. Benson sometimes had the same thought, although at the time he was falling in love with the worship.

“I do not like all of the rigmarole,” Bill said. “I don’t get it. Just sing a couple of the good old hymns and preach me a good sermon and let’s go home”.

The worship is not for you, Bill, the pastor told him. It is for God. On Sundays we put on the best possible show for God that we know how to do. We are doing so in the way God’s people have always done it. If you get something out of it, Bill, that’s fine. But if you do not, that’s okay too. It isn’t even for you.”

Sometimes I will talk to a friend somewhere who is thinking about changing churches. Or someone will tell me they have changed churches because they were not getting anything out of the sermon anymore. Or the service “just isn’t doing it for me anymore”.

All these years later, Robert Benson writes, I finally have a good answer to my grandfather’s Sunday question. “Boy, what did you get out of the service today?” “It was not even for me”, he writes, “I wish I had known to say.”

Worship, very simply, is not for us. Worship is a gift that we give to someone else. Worship is for God. The origin of our word “worship” is similar to the word “worth”. We think about what something is worth, about its value. In the Revelation, one of our great sources of teaching about worship, we hear the refrain: “You are worthy, O God to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Worship is for God. But we can lose sight of this truth. Sometimes a new person will come up to me, in the atrium after the service or in the inquirer’s class and they will say, “we’re church shopping”. Or, someone recently became a member, and they will report, “we shopped around”. And there is an implication, which runs parallel to the children’s story:

This soup was too hot. This soup was too cold. This soup was just right!

We all form opinions about all of life, we are, if we are citizens of the U.S., comparison shoppers, and we make most of our decisions in this way. This has spilled over into worship over the past two decades. Some observers have described this as the “worship wars”: contemporary versus traditional, my favorite style versus your favorite style, and, a friend says, music often becomes the scapegoat in all of this.

Now there is profound worship in any style, but going down the road of style leads us to the wrong place, because it places everything in the context of my preference, my taste. Worship is almost unique in that it is not about your preference or mine. It is something else altogether.

It’s not for you, or me. It is for God. It is an offering, it is the offering of our very best selves to God. And there is a deep biblical tradition of worship, of giving our best offering, our first offering, the first fruits of the harvest, to God. For this reason there has always been a connection between worship and economics. This has been a tumultuous, even historic week from an economic perspective. It calls for our prayer, our concern, our attention, our support of one another, and our faith. We may also, as Christians who worship God, choose to somehow connect economics and worship.

Christians always worshipped on the first day of the week. Sunday is the first day, not the last day. This makes a big difference. God’s people were instructed to give of their first fruits to God. If we give to God out of what is at the end of our expenses, our needs and then our wants, the economy does affect the church. If we give to God out of what is at the beginning of what we receive, the economy has less effect on us. Worship is an offering, of our best selves, our real selves, to God.

We see a rich picture of what worship looks like when we open our Bibles to the sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah is in the temple, overwhelmed with the beauty and glory and awesomeness of God, and he hears the voices singing,

“Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole earth is filled with his glory”.

This is nothing other than an experience of praise. And Isaiah is caught up in the great mystery: this God who is above and beyond all things is at the same time near, close at hand. Worship begins with praise. We begin our worship by processing to the throne, offering our gifts, our selves to God, whom we know through the cross, the sign of God’s power and love for us and for all people.

In the temple Isaiah is caught up in praise. And then something happens. After praise, if it is authentic worship, an experience of the holy, we see ourselves in a different way. Isaiah makes a confession, an acknowledgement, a true statement about himself. Woe is me, I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips.

When we worship God we are somehow changed, this is not the purpose, it is not about us, but by experiencing God we are transformed. And then there is good news, an intervention: our guilt is taken away, our sins are forgiven. The God of the Bible is powerful and mighty, holy and beyond us, but at the same time gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. Our guilt is taken away, our sins are forgiven.

But….that is not the end of worship. Worship is more than a relationship, even a transaction between God and the individual, or even God and the believer. When it is authentic worship, when it is an experience of the holy, there is unfinished business. God has our attention.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send, who will go for us? And Isaiah responds: Here am I, Lord. Send me.

If we have entered into the world of the Bible we are a long way from church shopping, we are a long way from sizing up the deity that matches our temperaments and tastes, our styles and status. The roles have been reversed, the world has been turned upside down, and all of a sudden we are a part of someone else’s agenda.

Worship, passionate worship is all about praise and confession and forgiveness, and from worship there flows the desire and the call to reflect God’s glory beyond the temple, outside the sanctuary into the world, and so there is the call, the invitation, “whom shall I send, who will go for us?
And then there is the response: Send me.

Worship is not about us, it is not even for us, and yet if it is the worship of the biblical God, when we have worshipped we have been changed, transformed, and we have begun to see the world as a new world, even a new creation, we begin to see, in the words of NT Wright, the overlap of heaven and earth, and we are filled with a deep desire to reflect God’s glory in the world. The Disciple Bible Study has a good way of phrasing this: the inward mark is holiness, the outward mark is compassion. Passionate worship, as we will see in a couple of weeks, leads to risk-taking mission, and, a few weeks later still, extravagant generosity.

But worship is central, it is crucial. Without worship, everything else is threatened. We see our gifts as our own possessions; we see the world as a resource to be used; we see our neighbor as the competition for the goods that we would seek for ourselves, we see the truth as whatever spin we can put on it. Without worship we easily deceive ourselves and ignore others. Without worship, we can wander off into all kinds of places, and none of them is the destination that God wants for us.

Passionate worship changes all of life. I will confess to you that I consider worship, the very thing we are doing right now, to be something of a miracle. Sometimes someone will make a comment to me like “our attendance was a little down this morning”. And my thought is usually “I am just amazed that anyone comes to worship.” Why would anyone leave the comfort and warmth of their own bed on a Sunday morning, put expensive gasoline in their cars, search for a parking place that sometimes is some distance away, drink coffee that may not be as good as you make at home, sit in a room that is usually either too hot or too cold, sometimes next to people they don’t even know…why would people do this?

It makes no sense, unless there is a God, a God who is real, a God who is above us and beyond us but also beside us and within us, a God who created and sustains all things, a God who is worthy of our worship.

So, maybe today you get home, you are talking to your children, or your husband or your wife, or a friend, and they say, “So…what did you get out of the service today?

And you answer, “It wasn’t even for me.”

Sources: Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer; N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.

Note: After preaching this sermon I was delighted to learn that the preacher referenced in the conversation was Russ Montfort. Russ was the legendary pastor of West End UMC in Nashville, and he and Ruth lead a remarkable Sunday School class in Providence with developmentally disabled adults.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

a rich, full and exhausting week

This has been a rich, full and exhausting week, filled with many good and at even exceptional moments, and yet exhausting nonetheless. It began with a very busy Sunday (September 21), which included the morning services, focused on the theme of passionate worship, and continued with the welcoming service for our new bishop. Monday was a day packed with administrative tasks, as I would be away from Charlotte on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Early Tuesday morning I flew to Dallas to participate in a gathering of pastors around the planning for the next Lausanne Conference, which will take place in Capetown in 2010. Lausanne is an initiative that focuses on global evangelization, "the whole gospel for the whole world". The primary purpose of this gathering was to allow North American pastors to hear from Christian voices from the majority world. There were about one hundred of us, and some of the best known congregations across the U.S. were represented. I sat at a discussion table with Andy Crouch, the author of an excellent book that I had actually been reading on the plane, and in preparation for this Sunday's service. The book is entitled Culture Making, and it makes a simple and yet profound point: Christians (evangelical, but also mainline) are usually better at critical reflection on the culture than constructive engagement with the culture. The gathering seemed to be a hybrid of evangelical and mainline, and I hope the United Methodist Church can somehow be present with what is happening there.

I flew home at the end of Wednesday, on a crowded plane from Dallas to Charlotte. You imagine how much fun that was for yours truly, almost 6'6''!

Thursday morning---back in the office, getting ready for Sunday, touching bases with staff, returning phone calls, and email messages. It happened to be the day that two very high need men came by to see me, neither a member of the church, one sent to us by a pastor friend in another state. We have shower facilities, so he was able to get clean. The other, who may have a mental issue--I am hoping that he does not read blogs--gave me a two page, single spaced essay on the state of American moral and political life. He is homeless, I think and sometimes joins in our services and meals (while we do house the homeless, I do not think he participates in this in a structural way).

By now, Charlotte has a gasoline crisis...long lines at the pumps, many stations without gas. My wife and I were now headed to Atlanta, where I would tape two sermons the next day with Day One/Protestant Hour. We found gas and drove down I-85, spending the night in Commerce, Ga, near Athens; the next morning we drove into Atlanta, where the taping happened. I enjoy working with Peter Wallace, who is the host. Then a small group of us had lunch the next day at a hotel across from the Fox Theater on Peachtree Street. The Fox Theater brought back memories: as a college student I saw Gregg Allman in concert there, and also Dan Fogelberg.

Pam and I then drove farther down I-85 to Montgomery, for Family Weekend at Huntingdon College. Our daughter Abby is a student there; our "adopted" son from Haiti, Jacques, is also there. We saw our close friends, the Wests, watched the presidential debate, woke up the next morning and took our daughter shopping, then went to a tailgate party before the Huntingdon football game. We watched the game from the President's Box there (our friend Cam serves in this role and has given superb leadership these past few years in bringing Huntingdon closer to its identity as a college of the church). Afterward, my wife gave a presentation to a small group about the School of Mercy, which we are seeking to reestablish in northern Haiti. Then we drove home, back up I-85, six and a half hours.

My sermon this morning would be on the gospel lection. I have been preaching for approximately twenty-five years, but had never worked with this particular passage (a man has two sons and asks them to work in the vineyard; one says no, but later works anyway; one says yes, but does not follow through). I tried to relate all of this to Andy Crouch's book on "culture making" and to the week's overwhelming sense of economic angst---at times we are simply called to go out each day and labor in our particular vineyard.

This morning I arose early, drove to the church (most gas stations are still without fuel), and preached twice. In between I talked to a group of eighteen first graders about the liturgical year (!). After the services Pam and I walked from the church to a nearby restaurant and ended up having lunch, to our happy surprise, with a retired pastor and his wife who worship in our church.

Then home, and a nap, and a Panthers victory, and exercise.

In the morning it begins again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

service of welcoming for bishop larry goodpaster

Providence UMC hosted a Service of Welcoming for our new Bishop, Larry Goodpaster. This photograph gives a good aerial view of our sanctuary. It was good to be in the house of the Lord for this hopeful occasion.

Friday, September 19, 2008

when government is needed

As a New York Times columnist notes this morning, the financial world has come to the decision that government is not the problem, but a part of the solution. Charlotte, North Carolina is a banking community, and since Monday morning (which began with a seven a.m. committee meeting) I have been in conversation with very intelligent, faithful and generous members of the community who are simply shaking their heads and commenting that the present financial situation is "a mess". I am also an early morning person, and my day usually begins by listening to the BBC, which broadcasts what is happening in the financial markets in Europe, and, even earlier in the day, in Asia. The U.S. is invariably shaped by these developments.

Late yesterday afternoon and early this morning there appears to be a more upbeat spirit, with the likelihood that the government is going to intervene. This is all to the good, and this seems to have broad and bi-partisan support. Locally, this also bodes well for the banking culture in which we live, for the livelihoods and retirements of many good people.

The bi-partisan support for governmental intervention in the present financial debacle has moved me to wonder about the possibility of such a posture in other crises: for example, the need for national health care, or giving access to higher education to the children of the working poor. My life has been enriched by access to public education, and my grandparents and great-grandmother lived in their later years through the resources of social security. I am opposed to the privatization of these programs (in the form of taxpayer support of homeschooling or private schools, or the privatization of social security).

Putting aside the political rhetoric, government is not always the problem. At times, and at the moment because an unchecked market has been infected with greed, only government can be the solution. Could individuals in both politicals make their way to seeing this as a model for two other matters(?): the deplorable state of health care in our country (due not to the gifts of medical practicioners, but rather to the market-driven captivity of medicine) and the growing divide between rich and poor, which manifests itself in the educational options (or lack of them).

I am hopeful that a new political regime will engage the masses of younger adults who are participating in this election cycle in seeing government not as the enemy but as a means of providing basic human services to all of the citizens of our country. Wall Street is surely at present a crisis in need of response; but other crises await our constructive response, and, as we learned after Hurricane Katrina, the faith-based community cannot and should not do it alone---the government is needed, and should intervene.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

forgiveness (matthew 18)

It begins with a question, spoken by, who else, Peter: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Why did the early Christians remember this story? Maybe they needed to remember it, maybe it continued to be relevant. Christians have always done things to each other, even members of the church have done things to each other that required forgiveness, and evidently we have needed to know the answer to this question. It is true.

I grew up in a church that would sing “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place”, and yet I knew enough to know that there were not only sweet, sweet spirits, but also unclean spirits: a woman did not speak to another woman, a family kept their distance from another family, one group liked the preacher, another did not, one group controlled the cemetery, I could go on. We had bumped into each other, bruised each other, battled with each other, we were the church, imperfect people who needed to forgive and be forgiven.

It was so from the beginning. How often should I forgive another member of the church? We are not talking about forgiving people of other faiths, or people of no faith? Another member of the church… how often should I forgive?

Seven times would seem to be a lot. Seven is the biblical number of wholeness, completeness, perfection. Seven would be stretching it for most of us. Peter must have thought it was a pretty extravagant gesture. But no, not seven, Jesus says: seventy times seven. A lot. I was not a math major, but that adds up to 490 times. At least that was my interpretation as a kid, hearing this story. Wow, that is really taking it, over and over again. Some translations have it as 77 times, not seventy times seven, but regardless, the point is clear: a lot of forgiveness, virtually unlimited forgiveness. This is a stretch for most of us. Of course, Jesus is not asking us to take this literally. Maybe the point is that relationships are worth the time, the effort, the blood, sweat and tears of keeping them whole. And relationships always exist in the midst of conflict. It is true in that greatest of relationships, the one between God and his children. Jesus is always connecting human relationships with heavenly relationships, and he does this by telling a story

A ruler, as an act of compassion, forgives a great debt---ten thousand talents, the wages of a day laborer that would be earned over a twenty year period. Then that very man who had been forgiven encounters someone who owes him a much smaller debt—one hundred days wages. He grabs him by the throat and demands the money. The one who is in debt refuses and is thrown into prison.

All of this is a problem for those who have witnessed both acts, and it gets back to the ruler, who is, understandably, upset. His response is straightforward: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” In anger the ruler hands him over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt. Now hear it from a different perspective. As the poet Emily Dickinson said it, “tell the truth but tell it slant!”

Imagine that the United States owes an enormous debt to China, a debt so large that we will never repay it. China says, “your debt is forgiven. You are free.” Now there are financially astute people here this morning who hear this and who would say, under their breath, “this is enough to make me laugh out loud”. That is exactly how it would have struck those who heard Jesus tell it. Who would forgive such a debt? The United States is happy with this outcome.

But then say there is this guy, let’s say he lives in Yadkin County, he is a farmer, or it is a woman who works in a textile mill in Caburrus County, and they owe two-thirds of the income tax for a year, and can’t pay it. What happens? They are thrown in jail. And word gets back to China…and on and on.

And this leads to the moral of the story, Jesus says, So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

It is, one scholar has described it, a story of forgiveness without grace. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, the cross being the great visual symbol of what God has done for us, and, the parable teaches, what we might do for each other. It is woven through the biblical story, from the great flood, another symbol of the cleansing of human sin, to the words from the cross at calvary: “Father, forgive them”. Like the prodigal son, forgiveness is also more than an idea considered in a holy book. It is where we live, it is the intersection of God’s story with our story. Forgiveness is always relevant, it is two friends, two boy scout leaders, two choir members, two NFL football players, two presidential candidates, two siblings, two spouses.

Several folks in our congregation have been reading the New York Times number one bestseller, The Shack. It is a novel about a man named Mack who takes his children on a backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest. While tending to one of his children in a canoe, one of his daughters disappears. A search by police and residents of the wilderness ensues, and the search leads them to the shack, where her bloodied clothing is lain by the fireplace. This precipitates, in the words of the author, William Young, “the great sadness”.

There is immeasurable grief within this small family: the father is at times guilty and at other times angry, the child in the canoe withdraws. They are a religious family and their faith is severely tested. I won’t go into all of the details of the book, which are quite fascinating, but a recurring issue is this matter of forgiveness: can Mack forgive God for the loss of his daughter, or should he? Can Mack forgive the murderer who ended his daughter’s life, or should he? And a part of the story goes back to Mack’s childhood and his alcoholic and abusive father? Can he forgive his father, or should he?

The Shack is really a series of dialogues between Mack and God the Trinity. I will let you discover how he encounters the Trinity, it is quite creative, but a recurring issue is the matter of forgiveness. Late in the story Papa, who is a member of the Trinity, is having a conversation with Mack. Mack has spent a great deal of time, healing, restorative time with Papa. Along the way Mack has forgiven his father---a difficult but powerful experience. Now, an even greater challenge. “You have to name it”, Papa says. “How can I ever forgive the s.o.b. who killed my daughter?”

“If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do. I know it isn’t right, but I would want to hurt him like he hurt me, if I can’t get justice, I still want revenge”.

Papa simply let the torrent of rage rush out of Mack, waiting for the wave to pass. “Mack, for you to forgive this man is to release him to me and allow me to redeem him?” [God’s forgiveness of us is connected to our forgiveness of one another.] “Redeem him…I don’t want you to redeem him. I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell…” His voice trailed off. “I’m stuck, Papa. I just can’t forget what he did, Can I?” “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of the other person’s throat”.

Why are people gripped by a novel like The Shack? It is a story about and endlessly fascinating and unceasingly relevant subject: forgiveness. We learn about forgiveness from teachers, like William Young, like Jesus, but also as we see it modeled. Jesus did both---he taught the disciples to forgive—the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”—and he forgave. What I have learned about forgiveness I have learned from teachers, like Jesus, and from seeing it modeled.

This week a close friend died, and I remembered how he had modeled forgiveness. His name was Derry. He was a friend of my wife’s family, had worked in business at Western Electric in Winston-Salem, and he was later called to the ministry. His son and my wife’s brother were high school golf teammates, and his son is now a PGA golf agent. Derry himself was a scratch golfer—that means he had no handicap, that means he was a very good golfer. My last conversation with him was at the Wachovia Tournament at Quail Hollow two years ago.

For five years Derry was the minister of visitation at Mount Tabor United Methodist Church. Serving with Derry, and with Abe Moyer here, I realize how blessed I have been to have worked alongside pastors like this, and I also wonder if God gives out some kind of special golfing talent to pastors who focus on visitation! Derry was reaching retirement, his son, daughter in law and grandchildren were in that church, and it seemed like a natural. It was not a great year, financially---it never is---but I persuaded the leaders to take this step. They did, and Derry would serve for eleven years, until his death, last Monday evening.

That is a little about Derry—here is what he taught me about forgiveness, not by his words, but the way he modeled it. Derry was serving a small mill village church in the piedmont of North Carolina. Who was a beloved pastor, and in fact shared a great deal in common with the people of his community. A member of his church was convicted of murder, and was put in Central Prison on death row. Derry began to visit him in prison, once a week, for several months, almost a year. The church loved this young man, who was from one of the longtime families in the church, and supported Derry for reaching out to him.

At some point another inmate was overheard to confess that he had committed the crime. The young man from Derry’s church was released. He was coming home. The church decorated the fellowship hall and through a great party. All was right, and justice had been done.

But this was not the end of the story. The man who had actually committed the murder contacted Derry and asked if he would visit him. Derry visited him once, and then again, and continued once a week. The church was not supportive of Derry’s visits with this man. He asked if Derry would be present when he was executed, and Derry was. He asked if Derry would preside over his burial, which took place in Forsyth County. Derry did.

The church’s reluctance to forgive was simply their living the question that Peter had asked Jesus, the question we are always asking: “How often should I forgive? Isn’t there a limit?” And Derry instinctively got it, the waiting father who wants all of the children to come home, the King who expects his forgiven servants to forgive others.

The end of the story is a picture of a man, hanging from a cross, who says to anyone who will listen, who says about us, you and me, “Father, forgive them”.

Sources: William P. Young, The Shack. Ben Witherington, Matthew. Thomas Long, Matthew.

five practices: our experience thus far

Last evening our church council voted unanimously to adopt the "Five Practices" as our missional strategy for 2008-2012. We see the practices as a specific path on the way toward our vision: to be the body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others. In the next day or two I will post our council's statement on this blog, but it arose very much from the grassroots. For us, the five practices represent a method of taking the practical step of moving from "Good to Great", a book our leaders read a couple of years ago. Our leaders have resonated with the Five Practices because it seems biblical and it seems to capture some of the ministry that is happening here, while also stretching us to be more faithful and fruitful.

Two sermons related to the practices are linked on this site, "Intentional Faith Development" and "Radical Hospitality", and I also contributed sermons to the Five Practices comprehensive kit that is available through Cokesbury. This Sunday we will focus on "Passionate Worship", and on World Communion Sunday we will reflect on "Risk-Taking Mission and Service". All of this will culminate with the topic "Extravagant Generosity", which will be our Stewardship Sunday (November 9).

We also have a leadership team that is shepherding the practices through a variety of channels in the church, mostly Sunday School classes at this point, and again this group found each other spontaneously. One of the benefits of their work has been to bring together extraordinary leaders, who had been doing very good work, around one common language and framework. I believe this will be of great help to our church in comprehending the strategy and, ultimately, in moving toward the vision.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

haiti under water

Some readers of this blog will know of my congregation's (Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte) twenty-eight year history of mission partnership in northern Haiti. In particular, we have helped to build a medical clinic that treats approximately 1500 persons in a given week; from this has emerged an orphanage, from funds given via a family foundation, a feeding program, treatment of persons with HIV/Aids, a long-term relationship with a Methodist circuit of eight churches, a young man who lived with our family for one and a half years prior to his transferring to Huntingdon College, where he is Dean's List major in Biochemistry, and, more recently, the establishment of the School of Mercy (K-5) in Milot, and plans for a microcredit partnership. For a North American congregation, it is all pretty amazing, and has been, in the language of Eugene Peterson, a "long obedience in the same direction".

Having said all of this, Haiti has been hammered by the floods left in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and now Ike. Gonaives, a city of 300,000 is in the most precarious of conditions. For pictures, see the link to "Partners In Health" to the right, in the Haiti section. All of this brings to mind Hurricane Jeanne, which killed 2000 persons in Gonaives in 2004 (1500 persons were killed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region by Katrina, a combined natural and humanly engineered disaster). Haiti is a mostly deforested country, with little tree cover to absorb massive rainwater (see Jared Diamond's essay on the distinction between Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of what is sometimes called Hispaniola in his epic Collapse). And yet the longterm need for ecological recovery does not answer the short-term need for disaster relief, which is, by all reports, almost a logistical impossibility, given the impassibility of roads.

I spoke with Jacques Lamour, now at Huntingdon, on Sunday afternoon, and he reminded me of the typical pattern of winds flowing through the Gulf--up from Port Au Prince, by Gonaives, with Cap Haitien protected by the northern mountain range of the country. He did say that many are coming to Cap, seeking refuge. Others, stranded in Gonaives, are living on rooftops. An imminent human disaster is in the offing. Already 1000 persons have died in the storms this month and 5 million people are without food or water (Source: Ralph Latortue, Haiti general counsel for South Florida).

So, what can you do? Contact your Senator and ask him or her to call for a substantial humanitarian response (John Kerry, Massachusetts has been the most notable voice in that body). Georgia, which is situated at the intersection of Europe and Asia, has received much greater attention than Haiti, which is two and a half hours from Fort Lauderdale. $20 million has been sent to Georgia; $10 million is being considered for Haiti. You can support the work of Paul Farmer's organization, Partners in Health, which has social workers "on the ground" in Gonaives,and is in the best position to respond to the medical crisis. And, you might give to the United Methodist Committee on Relief--Haiti (418325). All administrative costs of UMCOR are covered by local congregations via our apportionments.

A year ago, through the good graces of my friend Ron Robinson, chaplain at Wofford College, I served on a panel discussion with Paul Farmer, professor of medicine at Harvard, MacArthur genius grant recipient, co-founder of Partners In Health, and subject of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. I found him to be a brilliant and yet humble person, to have entered into such great suffering and accomplished so much good in the world, and especially in Haiti. His pilgrimage has taken him into the heart of the HIV and Tuberculosis epidemics in Haiti, Rwanda and Peru. He struck me as a compassionate and yet rational observer of the human condition. Farmer writes this month, about Gonaives, "I have never seen anything as painful".

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

If you have read this far, please circulate this post with any social network of which you are a part. Thank you.

Monday, September 08, 2008

radical hospitality (luke 15)

The prodigal son is a story that has captured the imagination of people of all ages, it speaks to folks inside the church and outside. It is, someone has said, Jesus’ masterpiece. It has been painted by artists---most significantly by Rembrandt, the work portrayed at St. Petersburg in Russia, a number of you have seen it; it has inspired music…we think of “Amazing Grace”, a hymn that transcends all genres of music, and speaks to people of all faith and of no faith. It is the gospel, and for that reason, it is for all humanity.

Someone has said that there are only two themes in all of literature: first, “a stranger comes to town”. Second, “a person goes on a journey”. In the parable a man has two sons, the younger one leaves home, surely this would have upset the birth order, taking with him the inheritance and leaving behind the safety and security of home, not to mention the bonds of relationship. And almost immediately, if we are listening, the story becomes our story: who present this morning has not lived this story (?), and that is really where scripture comes to life, when the story of God becomes our story.

The son leaves, and, to make a long story short, independence is not all that it’s cracked up to be. He goes through the money pretty quickly, and soon finds himself in trouble. He finds work, to survive, not the work he had hoped for, but it is a way to stay alive. Then, in the middle of the parable, a turning point: in verse seventeen, “he comes to himself”.

What an amazing phrase: he comes to himself. Meaning that truth cannot be imposed on us from the outside: we have to discover the truth for ourselves. Maybe you have heard the humorous comment, “when I was 18 I thought my parents were ignorant, when I was 24 I was amazed at how much they had learned in six years!”

He comes to himself. And so, he turns, toward home. And here, the genius of the parable is that it holds together the two great themes. His homecoming will be in the form of a stranger who comes to town. He is not the same person. And yet, he is going home. And so he rehearses the speech, what he will say to his father: “I have sinned, I am longer deserve to be called your child”, a speech, by the way, he never actually gets to make---such is the mercy of God.

He returns. Now the story could take two different paths here, starkly different outcomes, and I want to sketch them out. In the first, imagine that the wayward child is almost home, and he meets, not the father, but the older brother.

The older brother meets the younger brother. The older brother, arms crossed, thinking to himself: “I knew you would be back, crawling home to dad. I could have written this script. Give me one good reason why we should take you back?”

And I could imagine that the younger brother keeps on going.

I ask you to imagine this scenario because this parable was given so that our imaginations might be stretched. The unclean child returns home. Do we exclude or embrace? This parable has always been one of challenge and of comfort, and I want to take it in that order. And we not only hear it, as individuals. We must hear it as a church. And so the question becomes: are we, as a church, the church of the older brother?

And so I have reflected on the children who have lived in far countries and yet who may be on their way home, home to God, home to church.

Picture…a couple who have been burned by some bad experience in the church, and yet have some spiritual hunger and want to take some tentative step back.

Picture…men and women who have had the experience of spending the last few years in Iraq, living amidst a chaos and destruction they cannot make fully make sense of, knowing that we cannot understand it either. They will be returning to the U.S. in the years to come, in droves. Will we be ready?

Picture …gay and lesbian adults, who love Jesus, who have been shaped by the church, and yet wonder…does this church welcome me?

Picture…the single parent who gives birth to a child? Perhaps she is asking, “Would this church baptize my baby? Are we the right kind of family for this church?”

When you see the wayward child, returning home, who do you see? Sometimes a person you have never met? Sometimes your very own child? Sometimes yourself?

Because this is gospel, good news, the story as Jesus tells it takes a different path. The wayward child is returning home and meets, not the older brother, but the waiting father. While the child is returning, rehearsing the speech, the father, who must have been searching, and praying, sees him (verse twenty). While the son is yet at a great distance, the Father sees him, and runs (how undignified!), and embraces him, and kisses him. Let all of that soak in for a moment.

We see what we are looking for.

The fathers sees and runs and embraces. Active verbs.

This, brothers and sisters, is radical hospitality. Embracing the unclean, loving those who have abandoned us, welcoming the stranger. Note in the scripture: the Father does all of this seeing and running and embracing before the child confesses. And then there is a party, a feast, a family reunion. My son was dead and now he is alive. My daughter was lost and now she is found.

What a different outcome, and it has everything to do with who the wayward child meets, on the way home. I shared this week another scenario, and I mention it briefly again. It depends again on the exercise of your own imagination. If you are a younger person, that is your role, if you are an adult, that is your role. You can figure it out.

Your adult child grew up in Charlotte, but moved to a distant city. You know enough about his or her life to know that he or she has lived the life of the prodigal. They have known some despair, some difficulty, and some danger. They are far from home and far from the church. You are talking on the phone one evening and you hear a different tone in the voice. “Mom, dad, there is church near me, and this Sunday I am going to go to the service”.

Now let me quickly note how we get sidetracked. What is most important is not what kind of programs the church has, what style of worship the church offers, how handsome the facilities are, whether the beautiful people are among those in attendance. These are technical adjustments that we make. This is a person who hungers for substance, for something more.

You imagine your child waking up on Sunday morning, getting dressed, and finding their way into the doors of the church. Here is the question, if the church were our church, who is the first person you would hope they would meet when they pass through the doors?

Who is the person?

I have shared this exercise with smaller groups over my years here, and one name would be mentioned more often than any other: Catherine Ussery. If you have been blessed to live your Christian life here at Providence for more than a few years, you will remember Catherine. I knew about Catherine before I ever arrived: I was senior pastor of a church in another city, and one of our associate pastors there had lived in Charlotte, experienced a difficult divorce, found grace in this church, and had been befriended by a persistently older and mature woman with a beautiful smile: Catherine.

My friend’s life was changed by radical hospitality. He never mentioned finding a program or a style of worship or a certain décor or the beautiful people in our urban village. No, on the way home, while he was still at a great distance from all that God wanted for him, someone saw him, someone ran toward him, someone embraced him.

Catherine embodied radical hospitality, and over the years she helped to shape our church. Of course, radical hospitality abounds in many places here: with homeless families, with the Joy Class, and I could go on.

The question becomes, for us, how does the spirit of Catherine live on among us. Who befriends the young adult going through a difficult divorce? How could we become a congregation of Catherines? How could we re-discover the image of God, which is love, unconditional love, as we see it in this waiting parent?

I have preached on this parable before, and if you searched for that sermon on the Providence website you could read about the painting of Rembrandt: its significance lies, among many interpreters, including Henri Nouwen, in the painting of the hands of the parent, there seems to a masculine hand and a feminine hand. A friend in our church reminded me of Nouwen’s deeper interpretation of this parable, in that the three characters represent our development as Christians:

We spend some time wandering, exploring, tasting, experimenting, thrashing around;

We spend some time judging, critiquing, finding fault, comparing ourselves to others; these correspond to the younger and the older brother.

But then there is another way. After a lifetime of wandering far from home, and a lifetime of grumbling while staying at home, there is the one who stands at the window, waiting for a miracle: that the dead are alive and the lost are found.

If you and I “get” this story, it breaks down every barrier and it unites us into one family, and the symbol for this great meeting is and has always been a meal, Holy Communion. Charles Wesley “got it”, this gospel of grace, and his words of invitation are for everyone of us:

Come sinners to the gospel feast
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest
You need not one be left behind
For God has bid all humankind.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, The Return of The Prodigal Son; Charles Wesley, “Come Sinners To The Gospel Feast”, United Methodist Hymnal. Note: This meditation was giving prior to receiving Holy Communion.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

tall bearded methodist

As a gesture of personal self-revelation, I very occasionally blog at the Daily Kos under the alias of "Tall Bearded Methodist". You will find the blog entry below, in substantially the same form, in the Street Prophets section. See the link to the right under "Personal Preferences". And if we have ever met, you will understand why I chose this name for that venue! Have a good weekend, enjoy the worship services and the politically partisan banter! 59 Days until the election...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

the truth shall make you odd

The coronation of Sarah Palin by the Republican Party has ushered in a confusing time with a number of unintended consequences. I mention a couple: she is female, and brings much needed gender representation at the pinnacle of political power...and yet she brings no great comfort to those who have worked hardest for just this outcome. Why? She seems, on a number of levels, to be unqualified for the task, and yet if one voices this, the identity politicians quickly label this as sexism. But is it? Is there an objective criterion for truth? Palin has apparently attended several colleges on the way to a bachelor's degree. In contrast, Barack Obama served as editor of the Harvard Law Review, meaning, one might argue, that he had risen to the peak of one of the most rigorous academic institutions in the world. In saying this, is one being elitist? Or are there objective measurements for educational excellence, and, if there are, does this equip one for leadership in a complex world. Palin's daughter prepares to give birth to a child, out of wedlock. Far from bearing the stigma of a former time, Christian conservatives marvel that she is keeping the child, and bemoan the judgmentalism of the media. But haven't Christian conservatives been noted for their judgmentalism, and liberals for their permissiveness?

It seems that the events of the week have overturned all of our categories of making sense along sociological lines, and this is unsettling, to say the least.

I have lived through this reality, and the week's happenings underscore the chaos brought on by reducing human beings to labels, genders, ethnicities. The United Methodist Church, at least in its general church manifestation, has identity politics as its only orthodoxy. And yet the presence of a Sarah Palin reveals the fallacy of such a posture. The placing of her in this role by people who have had no interest in gender equality reveals further a cynicism about it all, but...and this is the cold, hard truth: they are correct. Surely there are qualities that we seek which transcend these labels, qualities such as compassion or truthfulness or competence. I think a woman as vice-president would be wonderful. Should Sarah Palin be vice-president? I don't think so. I think a woman would be wonderful as president. Should Hillary Clinton be president? I don't think so. Do the last two convictions mean I am misogynistic? I hope not. Could my convictions flow from an inability to see particular qualities in each candidate? And does my being male disqualify me from rendering such a judgment about women in leadership? Others will be the judge.

I ramble here, but it is my attempt to grasp what is going on. "You shall know the truth", the great southern novelist Flannery O Connor quipped, "and the truth will make you odd". So, the peculiar outcomes of a bizarre couple of weeks: Inclusiveness may not always be a good thing. Conservative Christians can find a way to be less judgmental. And be careful what you pray for: you may get it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

sarah palin

Like most of the world I was stunned by John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate (as potential vice-president) in the upcoming election. I keep up with mainstream politics, not to the extent that my wife does, but I must confess that I had never heard of her, and that is not entirely due to her being a Republican. She hails from Alaska, and her short resume includes service as mayor of a small town (roughly the population of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, and Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro) and governor (briefly) of a small state.

As a United Methodist quite immersed in denominational politics, one of my first reactions was that this election, as it has shaken out, must surely be welcomed by identity politicians as something of a breakthrough, apart from matters of ideology, competence or credentials: in 2009, we will either have a President who is an African-American or a Vice-President who is a woman. The world has changed.

A part of Sarah Palin's story borders on the absurd, and almost blurs with popular culture: she eats moose meat and describes herself as a "hockey mom". Maureen Dowd's brutally satiric piece on her in the New York Times yesterday ("Vice in Go-Go Boots?") led me to imagine her in a remake of Northern Exposure, one of my all-time favorite television programs: she is the bartender, the older proprietor of the saloon is John McCain, Maurice is Dick Cheney, the disc jockey in love with his own voice would have to be Bill Clinton, and maybe Barack is the Ivy League doctor who comes to town and seems oddly out of place.

Her credentials seemingly match those of the Republican religious right, and yet, the more you explore that, there are inconsistencies. She seems to have been branded as a fighter against Big Oil in Alaska, and yet her husband works at least part time in that industry. She is something of a reformer and yet is also involved in a small-scale scandal. McCain had apparently spoken with her no more that twice (but, as Frank Rich also noted in yesterday's NYT, McCain and George Bush have not spoken since May...amazing). She is a woman (this might appeal to Hillary Clinton's followers), but she is not pro-choice (this will not). I must confess that some of her convictions and experiences appeal to me (here I would list her pro-life orientation and giving workplace benefits to gays and lesbians) while others do not (drilling in ANWAR, teaching creationism). Again, it is all a bit eclectic. One senses that this is a politicians whose convictions are not fully formed.

What is of greater interest is her family story, which becomes, at once and by contrast to all that has preceded it, very serious: she gave birth to a child with Down's Syndrome in the spring, a son will depart for Iraq in September, and now a daughter (seventeen years old and unmarried ) is pregnant. One hopes that she can shield the media from all of this, even as she must also, in the bargain, refrain from using it all for political advantage (the birth in relation to the issue of abortion, the enlistment as support for the war). I fear that she enters into all of this because of her family story (she was chosen because of family and gender image), and yet this will become fodder for a public that can be unceasing in its appetite for scandal. I have the sense that Sarah Palin is an icon of the socially conservative branch of the Republican Right, and that the difference between the image and the reality will continue to be magnified in the weeks ahead.

For Sarah Palin it must all be a bit overwhelming.