Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Prayer For The U.S. Presidential Election

I shared this prayer first with a group of Charlotte District Clergy, at the invitation of George Thompson. I then led a group of Providence members in reflecting on it, using something of a lectio divina format, on a Wednesday evening. It has been posted on the Methoblog website, on the General Board of Discipleship website (UMC) and on the Upper Room website. Several friends have been gracious enough to circulate it, among them Leighton Ford, and it has been said in congregations from Texas to North Carolina and even as an invocation at a rally for Joe Biden in Florida (I would welcome its use by any candidate). Our congregation will pray these words in the services on Sunday morning. A good friend (Elizabeth Graves) added to it; she serves a rural parish and shaped the prayer to acknowledge our abuse of the land and gratitude for those who have cared for the earth. I greatly appreciate this insight, and the prayer is improved by the addition. I would welcome your use of it and circulation of it to anyone who might benefit from this prayer; I would especially be grateful to congregations who use it as an act of worship this weekend.


Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation
and the hope of earth and heaven.

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:

That we live under God,
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.
We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:

The displacement of native peoples, racial injustice,
desecration of your creation, economic inequity, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have passionately loved and cared for the earth and its fruits,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ
be a peaceable people in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace, justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship,
and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

love of God and neighbor (matthew 22)

Jesus was not running for political office, but he had been in a debate with the Sadducees, one of the political parties of the day, the one who controlled access to the worship life of the people, and after he had endured all of that, someone else stepped up to the microphone, a Pharisee, these were the ones who wanted to control the understanding of the Bible for the people. Jesus admired these folks in some ways, and yes, he endured them in some others. One of the Pharisees, trained in the law of the scripture, had a question. To be clear, it was not a question born of curiousity, but a question designed to trip Jesus up. The whole exercise was an interrogation.

So, the question, which commandment in the law is the greatest? There are 613 commandments in the five books of the law. Which is the greatest? Putting aside the motive, it is an excellent question, and much of the gospels is occasioned by the asking of questions. Why is this woman suffering? Why was this man born blind? Who is the greatest of your servants? Who is my neighbor? What should I give to the government and what should I give to God? The two rabbis are having a conversation, and one asks the other a question. Which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Providence is involved in an exciting study with our friends at Temple Israel. Rabbi Murray Ezring taught last Sunday evening, it was a lively time to ask questions, and Dr. Bill Jeffries will teach this Tuesday evening. Several participants noted the convergence of our two faiths in a number of respects. Nowhere is this more true than in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is asked a question, and in response he recites what is called, in Hebrew, the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord…

These are the most sacred words in the Jewish tradition. They are the first words a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. A devout practicioner of Judaism is required to say the Shema twice a day. It is their affirmation of faith! In the Hebrew Bible, where the Shema is found, in Deuteronomy 6, there was further instruction:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away and when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (6. 4-9).

Rabbi Ed Feinstein comments on these words

"Write them upon the doorposts of your house...." What values are written on the walls of our home? If someone visited our home, what would they learn of us from the art on our walls, the books on our shelves, the notices tacked to our refrigerator?

"Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes." To what purposes and ends do we invest your bodily and mental energies? What do we spend our time and strength doing? What energizes us? What exhausts us? What renews us?

"Talk about them, at home and away, morning and night...." What do we talk about? What concerns dominate our conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do we address the world? With what voice do we speak to those who share our home, our work, our neighborhood?

"Teach them to your children." What have we taught your children? What have we taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have we shown them matters most to us -- the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

"Keep these words ... in our hearts." What preoccupies our thoughts? What do we worry about? What do we dream about? What do we hope for?

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might." The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a "god." Our God, he taught, is the "object of our ultimate concern." So the Shema asks us: What do we love most in life? What is our god? The answer is no mystery.

"Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate our home, drive our work, color our words, shape our children and animate our thoughts, those values constitute our ultimate concerns. So what do we worship? What is our god?”

The beginning words, “Hear, O Israel” remind me of a simpler phrase: are we listening? Are we paying attention? Are we conscious of the direction that our path is taking? To say the shema is to refocus, to place God at the center, as a daily practice. I am aware that the ancient world of Judaism, the world that Jesus lived in, is not our world. We have more information flowing into our minds, more stimuli distracting us. With the secularization of western culture, we do not live in such a God-centered world. Unless we are in some kind of personal or national crisis, it is possible to live for long periods of time without thinking of God.

And so loving God is not as simple as it might seem. A first step might simply be getting to know who God is. On the next three Wednesday evenings, we will have a conversation about the nature of God, from a Christian perspective. Who is this God? Christians have a distinctive way of understanding God, one that differentiates us from our Jewish and Muslim friends. God can be known in three ways: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On the next three Wednesday evenings we will explore who God is? And then on the fourth Wednesday evening we will reflect on a recently published book that is an unconventional and yet engaging take on who God is. The book is entitled The Shack. I will tell you that, for me, one of the lessons of the The Shack is that, in coming to know the God of the Bible, we will fall in love with God.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, Jesus said, quoting the law. He reminded the rabbi, this is the first and greatest commandment. But Jesus was not finished. He continued: a second commandment is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

This second commandment, again, was from the law, from the book of Leviticus actually. Jesus is asked for one commandment, but he gives two and he says that they are actually the same. To love God is to love our neighbor, and vice versa. This is all the more radical when we consider that Jesus insisted in the Sermon on the Mount, that those who love God and follow him are also called to love their enemies.

Two problems arise from this brief teaching of Jesus. First, we divorce these two great commandments at our peril. We love God but bear false witness against our neighbor---and the present political process we are in is but one symptom of this. Or we attempt to love our neighbor, without seeing the essential relationship with love for the God who created them.

The unity of these two commandments has profound implications. At a macro level, the survival of planet earth depends on the three traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, whose adherents comprise well over half of the earth’s population, returning to their core teachings. These faiths can be very clear about their differences while at the same time finding “common ground” in the great commandment: the love of God and the love of neighbor. This has meaning at a global level with human rights and at a local level with extending hospitality to the stranger.

A second problem arises in the understanding of what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Here we expose the danger in our focusing all of our lives on God and our neighbor, to the exclusion of caring for ourselves. This can finally be self-destructive, and does not please God or help our neighbor. Rueben Job speaks of this as unhealthy self-denial. And so the Bible commands us to work and to rest (Sabbath), to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I realize there is another way of seeing this, and it the opposite outcome. We live in a culture that really is all about the self, but underneath it is about selling us a product that is not about us, but about the well-being of those who profit from the product. And here greed leads also to the destruction of individuals and communities. When God and neighbor become less important, we lose our grounding. Someone has said, “when we cease believing in God, it is not that we believe in nothing. We believe in everything!”

We are in need of a teaching, a way of life that holds together love of God, neighbor, and self. And we confess that we have failed at this. Some have loved self to the exclusion of the neighbor, some have loved neighbor to the destruction of self, some have sought to love God and have abandoned their neighbors (we are so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good), some have sought to love neighbor and have seen God as an unnecessary abstraction. The way of Jesus, the law that Jesus lived and taught, was the way to wholeness, the integration of love of God and neighbor. One of the desert fathers in early Christianity used this image to teach about the love of God and neighbor:

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference... Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings.

As we move toward God, we move from the circumference, traveling along various paths toward the center. As we move closer to God, we naturally move closer to each other. And so passionate worship (love of God) naturally leads to risk-taking mission and service (love of neighbor). When we glorify God we are the body of Christ, serving others. The opposite is also true: As we move farther from God, we grow more distant from each other. As we read in I John, we cannot love God, whom we have never seen, if we do not love our neighbor, whom we have seen.

On these two commandments---loving God, loving our neighbor---Jesus said, hangs all of the law and the prophets. The unity of these two commandments is the key to understanding the whole Bible, and the living of the two commandments creates a community and a world in which peace, justice and freedom flourish.

Sources: Ed Feinstein, Synagogue 3000. Laceye Warner, “Loving God and Neighbor: Sustaining Pastoral Excellence" (Duke Divinity School). The New Interpreter’s Bible, “Matthew”. Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules.

Monday, October 27, 2008

dan and courtney randall/latvia

Today was a good day. Most of the morning was spent in a long and engaging conversation with a wonderful couple, Dan and Courtney Randall. The Randalls are missionaries to Latvia through the General Board of Global Ministries; Dan works with young adults, continuing education for clergy and laity in the annual conference there, leads Camp Wesley and has developed their website. Courtney guides the educational work with children and youth and leads a ministry at the Hope Center, which is a mission with teenager mothers who have been forced to leave orphanages because they have chosen not to have abortions; many (most) of them have endured great abuse. Dan and Courtney are graduates of Duke Divinity School (2007), and were here to spend time with Courtney's parents, Bill and Dulcy, who are active members of Providence. After coffee, Dan and Courtney spoke to a large lunch gathering, and their testimony was compelling. If you are reading this blog and want to personally connect with the mission of God in eastern Europe, I have posted a link to Dan and Courtney's work here.
Thank you, Dan and Courtney.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

sharing the gospel

Yesterday I spoke in the morning to a wonderful group of Friends' (Quaker) pastors from North Carolina and Virginia. They were interested in the Five Practices (see link to the right), and it was fun to help them in the application of the practices to their contexts. I had relationships with a couple of them, having served a parish in Yadkin County, which is one-third Baptist, one-third United Methodist and one-third Quaker (my roughly assessed demographic). Earlier in the week, on Monday, I had spoken to a group of the first year pastors in our annual conference on the topic of stewardship. I always enjoy connecting with men and women at this stage; they are either eager to learn something that will help in a new and sometimes bewildering environment, or they are trying to transfer learnings from some other profession to ministry, or they are isolated, or they are overwhelmed. The simple fact of their coming together is helpful, I think.

The next day, on Tuesday, I officiated a the memorial service of a good friend, Pat, who had been in two classes that I had taught over the years (one was Disciple IV, the other Companions in Christ). Pat was a hospitable woman, very bright, with a transparent piety; she was stream of consciousness in conversation (always a challenge for a group leader), but nevertheless a real joy. I commented in the service that Pat had been supportive of every pastor who had served at Providence, and this was true, and this also was a real gift. Last evening, a friend and I led a conversation about "Faith and The Presidential Election". It went well, but was somewhat tense; I think people have internalized the divisions that are with us, politically, as a country. My friend Robb shared comments by Jim Wallis in the latest Sojourners, and I reflected on Adam Hamilton's Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. We closed with discussion of a prayer that I have written for the General Board of Discipleship's worship website, and the prayer is also reprinted in the current Providence UMC newsletter. If you wish to use the prayer in your worship service you are certainly welcome. Then we prayed, and the day was at an end.

So, four public occasions to share the gospel: two with clergy, one with a congregation of grieving friends and family, one with a collection of Christians seeking to connect faith and politics. Who knows what will become of the words that go out? In hindsight the words seem inadequate, and yet at the same time one must simply trust that God will do something with them.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

the lord's day

It was a good and full Sunday. It began as I ate a quiet breakfast and listened to "Speaking of Faith" on NPR. The topic today was on autism; I recalled a Confirmation Class in which two, perhaps three of the boys had some form of autism; it was both challenging and heartbreaking, not in a judgmental posture toward them but in the realization of how hard it is to be different in a mainstreamed world. Then to church; in the 8:30 service I was the celebrant; one of our pastors preached on the gospel for today, linking it to "Children's Sabbath Sunday". I then spoke to a group of adults about Leighton Ford's The Attentive Life (highly recommended). Then I met a close friend for lunch and we went to see the Carolina Panthers. We absolutely took it to the New Orleans Saints. It was a cold, fall day, and a glorious afternoon to watch NFL football. I then went back to the church and hung out at the well-attended Fall Festival for children and their families. And then my wife and I went to Temple Israel, for the first of four evenings of Interfaith Bible Study, bringing together our two congregations; there we ran into a couple who are active in the Temple, whose daughter played high school sports with our younger daughter. It was a nice reunion. Rabbi Murray led a lively discussion of Ezekiel 1; without this prophecy, he insisted, there would be no Judaism and no Christianity. Murray seemed to answer every question with another question, and of course this reminded me of another rabbi, one we met in the gospel lection for today---"Should we pay taxes?" he was asked. "Whose face is on the coin?", he responded.

Friday, October 17, 2008

w: why we need change

Since both presidential candidates are stating pretty clearly that their candidacies are all about change, it seems appropriate to reflect on why the need and desire for change is so strong in the United States. From my own point of view I am increasingly overwhelmed by the degree to which our current president, George W. Bush, has already changed our country. Let me count the ways:

1. He has led us into a war that is, in fact, contested on the stage of a civil war between two Islamic factions.
2. He has been an obstacle to any creative response to the present and impending energy crisis.
3. He has presided over almost eight years of avoidance related to climate change.
4. He has presided over a staff that ignored the warning signals related to 9/11, and then avoided the reality that the terrorists were predominately from Saudi Arabia, not Iraq.
5. He will conclude his term overseeing the most precarious economic conditions since the Great Depression.
6. He tacitly approved of torture, something either of his successors has condemned.
7. He will leave our country with an enormous indebtedness, which generations to come will struggle with.
8. He will leave our country undeniably weaker, and our relationships with allies immeasurably fractured.
9. He will leave his own political party in a shambles.
10. He will likely be remembered as the president who squandered resources of every kind, and in the end to no redeeming purpose.

As we enter into the final days of the presidential election, both candidates will make a strong case for change. And yet the haunting truth is that George W. Bush has already changed our country in profound ways over the past eight years.

Monday, October 13, 2008

faith, fear and the financial crisis (matthew 14. 22-33)

The disciples find themselves in the midst of a storm. They are out on the water, and their boat is being battered by the wind. It is chaotic and unsettling, and they have the sense that they are sinking. They are filled with fear.

We have lived now through several weeks of a storm that has and is threatening our community, our nation, and our world. We have been battered by the winds of a stock market that has lost over thirty percent of its value, we have been battered by the winds of a financial shock that has erased trillions of dollars of funds that many have been counting on for retirement, we have been battered by the winds of the disappearance of some of our most respected financial institutions, and we have been battered by the winds of a corporate change that will affect many people in our city.

If you listen to the radio, or watch television, or read the newspaper, you will hear phrases over and over again: toxic, flat-lining, tsunami, the cracking of confidence, chastened, the sinking of our economic systems into a sea of debt, greed and fear. It was this last phrase, the very real sinking feeling, that led me to reflect on this gospel passage. You could watch a financial news program or view the website of the Wall Street Journal or open an e-mail, as one was sent to me, and you could visualize the sinking, as the values moved lower and lower. It was as if we were battered by the winds, and we were sinking, and it produced a very real emotion: fear.

What would you imagine is the most common command in the Bible? It is not that we should love God or that we should love each other, although this is present in the scriptures and this is true. It is not that we should not sin, or not do harm to one another, although this also is in the scriptures and is true.

The most common command in the Bible: do not be afraid. Why does this command appear so often, actually 366 times in the scriptures? Because fear is a fundamental even primitive emotion that protects us. And fear is not always irrational. Many of us have particular fears: fear of death, fear of heights, fear of public speaking, fear of the dentist, fear of spiders or lobsters or dogs or snakes, fear of failure….Fear is an internal warning system that we are in the presence of danger. And in response to fear we usually act in one of three ways: we flee, we hide, or we fight.

This seems natural and appropriate. So why the recurring command: do not be afraid. At times fear can take on greater, even out-sized proportions in our lives. John Arey, who directs the Methodist Counseling Center and is a part of our congregation shared an insight last Sunday afternoon in a small group, and the insight came from his practice of therapy with a large number of individuals: that since 9/11 many people have been gripped by a fear that they cannot quite name or shake. Fear is appropriate at times, but there is also the kind of fear that takes up residence in our minds and hearts, it becomes attached to us and it paralyzes us. It affects us physically, mentally, spiritually.

I mention this because, from what I hear, we may be in the midst of this economic storm for some time: some say a few weeks, some a few months, a few years. Many of the most knowledgeable people I know will tell you that they do not know where this will all end. It is fear, and it is also fear of the unknown, and that is chaotic and unsettling.

Years ago a well-known theologian made the comment that the ordinary Christian should interpret the world with a newspaper in one hand a Bible in the other. The newspaper tells us something about what is going on in our world, but it does not tell the whole story, and that part of the story has everything to do with our faith.

The disciples are in the midst of the storm, they are being battered by the winds, they are sinking, and then…they see something. They see Jesus in the midst of the storm. At first they are so overcome by fear that they do not recognize him. But then they hear his voice: “Do not be afraid”. And here we encounter the good news. The good news does not deny the bad news, and the call to see our situation through the eyes of faith does not mean that we are escaping. We are simply invited to see our way forward in a different way. Jesus is asking Peter, and us, to do something. What would that be, for us? Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer, uses these words,. He says that we can…

“Make the conscious choice to move the attention of [our] anxious heart away from these waves and direct them to the One who walks on them and says, “it’s me. Do not be afraid”.

Over the past few days I told a few people that I would be preaching about all of this today----trying to bring the newspaper and the Bible together. I had a different sermon put together and yet I realized that this would be weighing upon our hearts and minds. And so I asked a few people who seem to be living in this midst of this particular storm a simple question: what would be helpful for me to say, and what would not be helpful?

I will share a couple of responses. One member of our church said,

“Help us on Sunday morning by focusing our attention on the really important gifts that God has given us. Help us to look beyond today's economy and crises to the "not material" love that God give us. Help us to focus on Jesus' love for us and His promise to take care of us - in the midst of this storm He is with us and He is with us Always”.

Another said, talk about… “The increased needs of the Community. There will be fewer dollars to help the needs of our community. And those needs will be greater than ever. I believe there will be more requests for the church’s help in local missions. This is a time for leaders to step forward. People need direction. People need words of comfort. People want to see the leaders step forward. The power of prayer. People need faith. People need a rock to grab in these turbulent times. God is that rock”.

And another: “Being a bit of a news junkie, I was listening to a wide variety of stations. After a steady diet of economic doom and gloom and the analysis of how terrible things will be under either political candidate, I finally had to turn it off to take a bit of a break. I found it to be quite refreshing. I'm not suggesting we hide our heads in the sand but a relaxing moment or two, taking a walk, or a reflective moment of prayer and getting away from the news reports may provide a little solace.”

What do we do in the midst of the storm? It is a time to be grounded in faith---reading the psalms, singing hymns. It is a time to re-connect with friendships that sustain us. It is a time to become more compassionate to those most greatly affected by these circumstances. Our church will serve women from the Salvation Army shelter next week. That is just one opportunity, and there are many. It is a time to simplify our lives, to clarify what is most important to us. And it is a time to recall that our security is in God and not in the stock market, our identity is in Christ, and not in our personal wealth. The question “What do we do in the midst of the storm?” may be connected to the question “Where is Jesus in the midst of the storm?”

Peter hears the voice of Jesus. Lord, if it is you, let me walk to you, on the water. That is living in faith. Jesus says, “come to me”. He begins to sink, again, and he cries out, “Lord, have mercy”. And Jesus takes his hand. It is a simple teaching about learning to take one step at a time, learning to live by faith and trust

Somehow our fears must be channeled to faith. Somehow, we benefit by seeing not only the storm, but Jesus in the midst of the storm. And when we see Jesus in the storm, we will see not only the comfort and assurance, but also the hope and even the blessings. Several people asked me to say that one of the most important things we can do is to see the blessings that are there for us, in the midst of the storm.

And so I thought back to another storm that has affected our lives. I thought of Hurricane Katrina, and how this church responded to the people who were battered by the winds of that storm. I thought of charter hall, absolutely filled with clothing, furniture. I thought of hundreds of volunteers, weekend after weekend. And I thought of some of the people who came to us from the gulf region.

One of those was a man named Mr. Wingate. His journey from the storm was from his home in New Orleans to the Superdome to a bridge to an airplane to the Charlotte Coliseum, which now no longer exists, to us. Many folks in our congregation stayed in touch with Mr. Wingate on a weekly basis. Well, that fall turned into winter and Christmas came, and this is the mental picture that has formed in my mind. Pam decided that on Christmas eve we would invite Mr. Wingate to have dinner with us. At that time Jacques Lamour from Haiti was also living with us, and Uzma, a high school and college friend of our older daughter was spending Christmas with us, and there was our family. It turned out to be quite a unique Christmas.

I reflected on the various storms that each of these folks had been through, Uzma from Pakistan, her father having died that fall. Jacques coming from Haiti, adjusting to a new culture, a new church, a new family. And Mr. Wingate, coming from New Orleans, living in a small apartment in the north Sharon Amity area. I thought about how they must have overcome fear, how they had passed through the waters, how they were entering into a new future.

Well, we were about to have dinner, we formed a big circle and had a prayer, then we had a feast, this was on Christmas eve between our third and fourth services on that day, we talked for awhile, and then Pam and I drove Mr. Wingate home. It was a quiet drive, and along the way Pam said “Well, I hope the party was ok”. There was a quiet pause. And then he said, “it wasn’t that bad”.

We laughed about that later, and we realized he was telling us the truth: in light of everything he had been through, surviving the storm, living in a new place, spending Christmas eve with a bunch of strangers. All things considered, “it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be”. He had survived.

Remembering the storm that brought him to us helped me to get a perspective on the storm we are now living through. This is serious but it is not a time to panic. We are going to make it. Who knows what will happen in the market tomorrow morning or this week, or in the economy next month or next year? This is the unknown, and over this we have no control. But there are some matters over which we do have control. We can look for Jesus in the midst of the storms of life----however they come to us---and we can listen for his voice. He is still speaking: Do not be afraid.

We can make the conscious decision to move from fear to faith.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love. John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk on Water, You Have To Get Out of The Boat.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

thanks for your patience--nothing really new

Over twenty plus years in ministry I can glance at the calendar and see that the first two weeks of October tend to be the busiest of the year, in that almost every denominational, congregational, community, personal event takes place here. It is all good, and includes time for seeing people that one only rarely encounters otherwise. It does cut into reflective time for original blogging, however, so I hope you will visit later. I do have a prayer for the U.S. presidential election posted on the Worship page of the General Board of Discipleship (UMC), and I will post today's sermon soon, which focused on faith, fear and the financial crisis. I have just returned from the organizational meeting of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, where I will begin a second four year term, and early this week I will attend two days of the Duke Divinity School convocation (it is my twenty-fifth class reunion, I will get to see our older daughter in Chapel Hill, and Ronald Heifitz of Harvard is speaking, so it should be both fun and enlightening). Again, may the grace and peace of the Lord be with you, and come back soon!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

evening prayer in a week of turmoil

We had a service of psalms, hymns and holy communion this evening, in response to the dislocation that our community has felt this week with the news that Wachovia has been purchasd by Citigroup. Charlotte is a banking community---I often tell friends in other places that our ethos is not primarily the left/right political divide, but is more shaped by money (and indeed there are other strong banks here). Until very early this week we were the corporate home of two of the largest banks in the U.S.---Bank of America and Wachovia. Now the latter, for all practical purposes, is gone; at best it will be reshaped into a very different organization. All of this has been in the context of the sharp stock market declines which have affected the retirement resources of a number of people, and severe gasoline shortages, which have also forced us to think about our energy consumption in new ways.

All of this has been a very new experience for Charlotte, which has largely avoided the economic downturn that most of the country has experienced in recent months and even years (in contrast, most of the rest of North Carolina has been hammered by the loss of textile and furniture jobs). All of this has felt very familiar to me, having spent eighteen years in the piedmont triad of North Carolina: RJ Reynolds leaving for Atlanta, Piedmont Airlines being swallowed up by U.S. Air, Wachovia moving to Charlotte to merge with another bank.

The difficulty lies in the dislocation that many feel, particularly individuals and families who have begun to set down roots in a new place: discovering friendships, finding a church home, pursuing avenues of volunteerism and service, developing professionally, all of this somehow called into question by the events of the last few days. Everything--relationships, commitments--becomes more tentative.

We gathered in the chancel of our sanctuary, encouraging people to fill in those spaces before spilling into the pews. We chose five psalms---1, 16, 23, 40 and 46, and read them slowly and responsively (not as slowly as in a Benedictine monastery, but slowly nonetheless), with those on the pulpit side alternating with those on the lectern side. These psalms were interspersed with hymns: How Firm a Foundation; Be Still My Soul; When Our Confidence Is Shaken (a nice text by the British Methodist composer Fred Pratt Green); and O God, Our Help In Ages Past. I then read Philippians 4 ("I have learned the secret of being content...") and Matthew 6 ("Do not be anxious about your life..."), and we closed with the celebration of Holy Communion.

We were mostly there to draw upon the resources of Christianity---faith, hope, assurance, compassion, dependence on God and each other. In a week that has introduced a full measure of anxiety, anger and despair into our lives, and in the awareness of our complicity with the greed and materialism of American culture, the human cost and our resulting need for God and each other was palpable.