Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thankful for Enough

I sit in my den, at my faux clawfoot desk with leatherette inlays, banging away on an old dell lap-top--which is lighter but does not seem to be holding up as well as the old Royal my dad said got him through the war and the first twenty years of his career--thankful for the day, the family, the work, the blessings which are mine but only by grace.

I do not have much money, but I have a beautiful home--a "benefit" of serving this particular congregation. My wife and I are getting older and gaining weight, and my knee is still gimpy after summer surgery, but we travel along, singing a song, side by side. My kids are not in Harvard or MIT, but they are doing well and finding their way. They have faith, and hope, and oh, so much love. My book is not a classic or a best-seller, but I am as proud of it as I can be. I have finished the rough draft of my rough draft of the book that will come out September next, and I am WAY thankful for that!

Every once in a while I get a piece of good news or a little attention about my writing; yesterday I heard that an article I wrote, originally, as a presentation for a group of my peers, is being published in our official UM journal next March, and an e-interview I did for Dabbling Mum is on line:
I fire off emails to friends and family to share the news and I am always convinced, a few hours later, that I should not have, that they wiill take it for bragging or hubris, especially when I title the email, as I often do, "A bit of Hubris," but it really is thanksgiving. Humble thanks for these little and to me HUGE blessings associated with what I have long worked to do: which is, of course, write.

Tuesday at our community Thanksgiving service--and I love those kinds of events because you get to be for an hour what you are not normally, and in this case, a Pentecostal, as our preacher for the evening capered about and danced and sang his sermon up and down the aisles, mopping his brow and trying to provoke us (in the best sense of that word, "to call forth") into a less constipated praise than is usual for Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists. He finally stopped when it was clear we had come about as far toward him as we could, and that was not that close... but he preached on the text in II Timothy 3, about how in the last days people would be all the things we are in these last days, but especially this, he said: unthankful. And it is the truth that we are so unthankful. We are so entitled, we feel, instead, imagining that we deserve what we have and deserve even more. We lack graciousness and grace, we lack humility and deference, we do not love or hear the cry of the needy...instead we want, we demand, we expect, and then we want demand expect more.

I have long thought and often said that we need to develop a theology of enough. As when Esau said to Jacob, "I have enough, my brother. Keep this gift for yourself." But in addition to that theology of enough we need also I think to develop a sense of gratitude that is in keeping with the rabbis' counsel, that we pray to God to want what we have instead of praying to have what we want. If God is the giver and not the Wal-Mart, or the military, or even our own ability to provide, then we can enjoy the bounty that is already ours and not hanker after, or covet, the bounty of another. Enough, together with thankfulness, is shield against envy, greed, gluttony, lust, anger, and even despair--and pride, too, I guess. So ALL the seven deadly sins are silenced in us when we are thankful for our enough.

I have enough, my brothers and sisters. Which is not to say that I would not be thankful for more, but I want what I have, am thankful. Today and always.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Their Faults Forgiven--An All Saints Meditation

On June 2, 1935, at eight-thirty in the evening, and I assume the service started so late because of the heat, or the lack of air conditioning, or both, Lynn Harold Hough, then Dean of Drew University, offered the first sermon ever preached in the newly constructed Duke Chapel—the dedicatory sermon. “The Cathedral and the Campus,” it was entitled, and it was full of the kind of public optimism that existed in those uneasy days between the world wars. Public opinion: things are getting better, a little better all the time.

The nation was still in the throes of the Great Depression, the great Duke Chapel—itself built and paid for in those lean years—seemed to be the very symbol of the abiding American conviction that education and hard work (and a little help from the Almighty) can solve any problem, economic or otherwise. Yes, there were rumors of storm clouds gathering on an axis between Berlin, Rome an Tokyo, but the granite sanctuary stood as testimony to the classic and liberal Christian sentiment of a universal brotherhood, as it were, an enlightened good will between persons and nations beyond all class consciousness and ethnic hatred. Soon, education and hard work, thriftiness and democracy, would put a forever end to racism and poverty, hatred and war. Had not Christian thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century foreseen that the twentieth would be the “Christian Century”?

But on that same June evening in 1935, half-a-world away, Josef Mengele was in medical school, preparing to perform grotesque experiments on the powerless in Germany—thereby proving that education is not salvation; Dachau had already been in operation for two years, not as a killing place, not yet, at least not as it would become, but as a prison for German communists. Other camps were planned and would soon be under construction—Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belson—thereby proving that hard work is no savior. The same nation that produced Brahms and Beethoven was about to unleash Goering and Goebbels on the world.

Dean Hough’s sermon was optimistic, like we are sometimes optimistic, but the reality of our world is sometimes quite different. We need more than education and hard work, more than business sense and sound-byte bromides. And Dean Hough was wise enough to realize all of that, though he did not say it just that way. What he did, though, was end his dedicatory sermon with a story—a story that speaks to a need beyond what we ourselves can attain, a reality beyond what we can build and learn in this world.

He said this: “The other day I heard an address by a Christian leader of great eminence. I walked away from the building with a man whose name you would recognize. ‘It was a notable address, was it not?’ I said to my friend. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it was a great speech.’ He was silent for a moment. Then he added: ‘I am over 80 years of age. He told me nothing about what I can hope for when I make my great adventure.’”

Death: the great adventure. And what that wise old unnamed man in Dean Hough’s story was saying is this: I need to hear a word from the leaders of the church to help me die well. Education, hard work—money, maybe—they may, may, help me live well, or not, but what will let me die well? What will give me strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow? That is the message the church needs to proclaim: nothing less, and maybe not even a lot more.
But what is that message? Dean Hough concluded his story this way: he said, “One of the great French proverbs tells us that to understand earth you must have known heaven.”
To understand earth, you must have known heaven.

That, my friends, is why we gather Sunday by Sunday and come to the Table of the Lord month by month: to know heaven. That is why we celebrate a day like today, the Feasts of All Saints, to let us know that there is hope beyond the ordeals of our world, and to know it so well that we can understand: that if this is a world where in the name of science and medicine crazy men experiment on the helpless; if this is a world where political leaders in the name of life still send thousands and millions to their deaths; if this is a world where for all our education and hard work were are still not saved—then there is coming another world, another day, a Savior and salvation which will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is no opiate, my friends, to anesthetize us to the world’s ill; it is instead a promise, and a command, a hope and a summons to live now as we will live then, to understand earth, and our place in it, by knowing heaven.

John saw a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. The Elder said, “These are those who have come through the Ordeal, the horror, the death; these are those whose rags, dirtied by the world and its ways, are now glistening white because of the blood of the lamb. Because of the blood of the Lamb—because of that and no other thing.

Because of grace, in other words. Grace greater than the struggle, greater than the sadness; grace greater than the sin.

Several years ago, I was at our Annual Conference of ministers and laity at Lake Junaluska, NC. I was standing to pray in Stuart Auditorium during what is, for me, the high point of every Annual Conference: The Memorial Service. We take time each year to remember the ministers and spouses of ministers, who have died that year, and we thank God for them.

Pictures flash across the screen as the liturgist reads the names—I would like to do that in here—and there, all at once, was a minister I knew. I will not mention his name, but he was a difficult and troubled man. A man who had, in some obvious ways, betrayed his vows of ordination, and maybe in some other ways, too. And yet there he was with all the rest, his picture among the others, his name read as one of the faithful departed… I was still trying to puzzle all of that out when the liturgist had us read a prayer, and part of the prayer said this:

Eternal God, we praise you for the great company of all those who have finished their course
in faith and now rest from their labors. We praise you for all those dear to us, our loved ones
who are no more. Days, months, and even years may have passed, and still we feel near to
them. Our hearts yearn for them… (and then this) We see then now with the eye of memory,
their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. So does goodness live and weakness fade from
sight. We remember them with gratitude and bless their names…

Their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. And I guess to the cynical mind that is an opiate, a kind of denial, like the kind of we experience now and then in funerals when the preacher says, “He was a good man,” and everyone in the house knows he was a louse.

But to the faithful mind it is not opiate at all, but an echo of God’s grace, and the very thing we need to know of heaven—that in heaven, dirty robes are washed clean and faults are forgiven and virtue grows large. In heaven goodness lives and weakness fades from sight, and with gratitude we bless our God who forgives, and we bless our loved ones who are departed and forgiven, and even our enemies—Can God forgive their faults, make their virtue grow large? Of course God can. That is what we need to know of heaven.

And if we know that, then we can understand that if this earth is an dark evil place, sometimes, full of dark evil people, some of them, we need not fear. Though tribulation overcome us, that is not the last word. Though we have all of us sinned, fallen short of God’s glory and our own expectation, there is grace—our faults will be forgiven, our virtue grown larger. By grace. Thought we are all of us different, different languages, tribes, tongues, God will have us together at the Last, and that will be a day of rejoicing.

When we ALL get to heaven, that to say, and not just our closest friends and neighbors, but multitudes which cannot be named or counted, and all so precious to God he felt them worth the life of the Son…

When we ALL get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. We will see there those we love and have lost, and there we will regain them again. But even more than that… we will rejoice to see Jesus.

Does that give you hope for your great adventure? Whether you are eight or eighty, does that give you hope? Is that what you need to hear? Not by wealth, or education, or work, but by grace our faults will be forgiven, by grace our virtue grown larger, when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, October 09, 2006

And the answer is...

“So what is your book about?”

I have gotten that question more than once in recent days, people checking the menu and the price before sitting down to order. So, let me give you the recipe--in a couple of different versions.

Here is the “formal answer.” My book is a spiritual memoir, a slice of my life set in the context of a single “day” of my ministry. It begins before first light as I wake, dreaming of Jesus standing at the shore of my dreams and calling me back to land. I go on then to narrate and ponder the various dimensions of my life and work. Framed and intersected by three of the traditional services of daily prayer (morning, noon and night), I tell stories about my family and friends. I baptize babies and sit bedside church members as they die. I recount a few of my more obvious failures (and confess some that are not so obvious). And I bless God for the little rays of light that have come to me and, I pray, through me. In sum, I look at the movements of a day: the goings and comings, the separations and reunions, the chance encounters and happenings which, as John Baillie put it, are part of God’s “gracious plan for the education of my soul.” There are chapters on time with the family, study, counseling, teaching, visits, choir, returning home and making ready for bed. I pull back the curtain on my life in hopes that others can see themselves there (my friend Frederick Buechner says that we each of us look to find our own faces in others’ picture albums, that being the reason memoirs are the least bit interesting).

The informal, and in some ways truer answer is this: ten years before I came to Stanley I went through a profound crisis of faith and life. I had lost or was losing almost everything precious to me and found myself in a terrible wilderness of exile and despair. The weekly grace of a Christian gentleman named Bill Lovett, the monthly support of my long-suffering mother, the abiding hospitality of my saintly sister helped me keep body and soul together till I could heal, or begin to (the process continues). During that time I had to learn to pray, not as a public part of my job but in the deepest and most private parts of my soul. The book I have written is a chronicle of that process—of learning to pray, learning to examine all of my life and work by the sometimes scorching, sometimes soothing light of God’s presence. Hard to imagine, I guess, that a preacher had to learn to pray, but I did (or am beginning to: the process continues), and while this book is not a “how to,” it is a kind of “how I”: how I live and move and have my being in the One who ever calls me from my dreams and illusions to ever greater wakefulness, ever greater faithfulness, ever more (God, I pray) selfless service.

It is not always an easy read, this book of mine, though a friend wrote even today to tell me it was much more of a page-turner than she would have expected. My daughter said that reading it, she felt I was in the room with her. Another friend said to my wife, “It is so Tom.” Yes, for better or worse that really is me there, warts and all. And so I guess that is the best answer to the question. "What is the book about?" The book is about me. And God. Him, too.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Smile of a Pharisee

I see them all the time, those knowing, Gnostic grins, condescending and self-serving, and I guess the reason I notice and react, badly, is that more times than I would like to admit I sport the same, think the same, communicate the same: if only you knew as well as I, if only you believed as I believe, if only you had the kind of relationship with Jesus that I have (when I, at least, know far better than any of that; which admission is in its own way Pharisaical; is there no escaping the trap?). And we Pharisees have our proof, God knows: texts and tracts, diplomas and credentials, statistics and long-range plans.

Nouwen says that Prodigals cannot help becoming Elder Brothers, and perhaps disciples cannot help becoming Inquisitors, or at least "experts." The fundamentalists on the right and the fundamentalists on the left are all of them Fundamentalists. Pharisees, all.

And so the Will Graham crusade is coming to town. Will is the son of Franklin, the son of Billy. And though our UM churches have as a stated goal (as if it needs to be said), "Intentionally relating unchurched persons to Jesus Christ," we look down our collective noses at this form of evangelism, content ourselves that we are not emotional or manipulative or whatever--as if all crusades are created equally--and meanwhile we languish. We are adrift between prosperity and damnation, not wanting to preach either, not sure what to preach to invite others into the fold. The Baptists and Wesleyans are on board and the Methodists are not, all of us looking at each other and all of us smiling the smiles of Pharisees...

For Presence's Sake

I have a friend, a crusty old bishop, who snorts that in many of today’s congregations the de facto job description for “pastor”—that is, what people seem to expect and therefore what pastors, anxiously, try to provide—is “presence.” Mere presence, he says. Pastors are to “be there,” in other words, wherever there is and for whatever the reason. Today’s pastor, he says shaking his head, is “a quivering mass of availability.” But, he concludes, “the pastor who is always available brings nothing with her when she comes.”

A pastor’s days are filled with important things, the bishop says, and in truth there are plenty of important things pastors are expected to do: there are meetings to attend, visits and calls to make, favor to curry and fires to put out. But, says the bishop, if pastors are always available (quivering or otherwise), and always do only the important things, they will never have time for, nor will they do, the crucial things. The crucial things are prayer and study—those first, of course—and only after that visits and counsel; only after that sermon and Bible Study preparation. The important things come only after the crucial things. Why?

To have anything worth a Sunday morning saying or hearing, pastors themselves have to take time to listen. They have to ask, “What is God saying to me?” before they ask “What am I going to say to my people.” That kind of listening is hard and time-consuming work. Moreover, to be “present” to a situation, really present and not merely present to people and circumstances—bringing something more than clichés and quivering—requires time apart with Jesus. As precedent, remember how often Jesus himself went away alone in order to pray.

In sum, to shepherd the faithful, the faithful pastor must spend time with the Shepherd, must tend to his or her own faith. And so next week, if God allows, I will be in the mountains praying, studying and writing. We have friends who are gracious enough to leave a key under the mat of their beautiful vacation home and every year (with the approval and blessing of our Staff-Parish Relations committee), I go away alone for a week or so—not for vacation, though the setting is pristine enough for one—but to slow down, to focus, to do the hard and intentional work of listening to God. I read God’s Word and I ponder what I read. I write down what I think I may hear and reflect on pastoral moments and circumstances. It is a spiritual exercise and absolutely necessary for me if I am going to be an effective pastor (or at least as effective as I can be).

It is hard to leave home—and it is sometimes harder to come back—for there is lots of important stuff I could be doing here every day. But crucial work awaits me there—the work that by grace will allow me to come back with ears more keen to hear, a heart more ready to serve, with a word that, I hope, is worth the saying.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


yesterday I was 477, 481st in sales at I am 512, 979th. OH NO!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

At Long Last...

I mean that.

It has been a long time coming, what arrived recently at my house: a package from the warehouse where my freshly printed and bound books are stacked neatly on shelves, awaiting the orders sure to come. The label on the box said NavPress and I knew the treasure in side, thirty copies of Praying for Dear Life: A Reason to Rise, Strength for the Day, Courage to Face the Night.

As I have mentioned in other posts, it has been thirty years since I knew I wanted to write and had some reason to believe I could. It has been twenty-eight years since I first read Buechner and knew that spiritual memoir, especially as refracted through the Bible (or vice versa) was the kind of writing I wanted to do. It has been 26 years since my first little book was released, a pretty feeble collaborative with a couple of friends of mine from seminary (and while Lauren Winner says we cannot refer to our books as little, this one was little, as was the second booklet, a worship resource written solo, a few years later). It has been six years since the idea for this book came to me in a Bojangle's in Monroe, NC, the day after Christmas and the day before I was rushed to the hospital with something called labrynthitis (chronicled briefly in chapter 1). It has been two and one-half years since I took an armload of proposals and partial manuscripts to Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing, where the first person I saw was an editor named Rachelle Gardner who read it and asked to see a bit more. I was crazy nervous, and even more so when I saw her left eye-brow arch-up and she invited me to sit down (see her take on this scene at

It has been nineteen months since I started doing serious rewrites and fourteen months since the final manuscript was finally handed in...and why it has taken so long, I do not know, but now I have a box of books on my kitchen table and great thanksgiving in my heart that this part of the journey is behind me. Though, truth to tell, like the Israelites when they finally reach the promised land, I sometimes look back fondly toward the wilderness. It was such harrowing fun working with Liz Heaney. Harrowing, and fun. It was so frustrating waiting for Rachelle to answer my emails, tell me the latest, but there was always good conversation to be had. It was a struggle, but I have learned so much.

Will I do it again? Well, I have a manuscript that NavPress will publish next year at this time and then, who knows. Terry said it would depend on sales, whether NavPress would want me to do more. For me, the question is more internal than that. Have I said all I have to say? Maybe. maybe not. Wherever the road before me leads, the road behind has led me here, and at long last there are books on my table with my name on them and Buechner's below mine and I know of twenty that have sold and of a few I will give seeds cast from the hand of a patient sower, or I could hope as much, hoping some of them find fertile soils, that the reviewers (if there are any) do not gobble them up like crows, that other books do not choke them off too soon and that other more luminous works do not scorch them to death.

I am thankful to have come this far.

PS It was on September 11, the anniversary of the attacks which will remain a part of our national identity--allowing us, sadly, to imagine ourselves evermore as innocent victims and undaunted overcomers, American Adams all over again, as the author said--that I received the package from NavPress. I wonder what that confluence means?

Monday, September 11, 2006

I Come to the (Olive) Garden Alone...

I have gotten rather hooked on that “all you can eat” soup and salad deal at the Olive Garden (breadsticks are included, too!). How they make a profit off us guys who order every soup every time is a mystery but I don’t worry about it. Instead I stick a napkin in my collar and go to work. Now and then I carry a book to pass time between the servings; usually, discreetly, I observe my neighbors.

The other day I had a fresh bowl of minestrone in front of me when something made me glance over a couple of tables. There was a family of, oh, about twelve, just beginning to celebrate a birthday it appeared. What I noticed next, though, was that each of the four kids was playing with a hand-held computer. I had almost no time to get indignant (we told our kids to put theirs away so we could have conversation!) before I looked again to see that of the eight adults at the table, five of them were talking on cell phones.

Maybe you have seen this kind of thing yourself—a family, even a group of friends, but everyone at the table is talking to someone else or living in another world. They are “together,” if you look at it one way, but at the same time separated as they can be. If we are honest we might all of us confess that we felt this kind of thing, too—that even among friends and family, sometimes geography is the only thing we have in common.

On the one hand I can understand and in some ways even bless the hunger for something more than we might be experiencing at any given moment. Though this desire is without doubt the root of more than one of the Deadly Sins, at the same time we all of us have the disquieting sense that there is a Conversation yet to be had which is more crucial than the ones we’re in. There is an Adventure awaiting us that deserves our immediate Attentions. We long for Friendship deeper and more life-giving than the often codependent ones we have now. And so we take the call, play the game, turn away from the ones who are with us—in the often unspoken and mostly unconscious hope of the Other. Augustine meets Verizon, if you please: this generation’s wireless version of our wired-in restlessness.

Still, the Incarnation demands that we see this moment and this people as the place where Jesus is present—when two or three or twelve gather together—and therefore it is a call, a spiritual obligation as much as it is a challenge, to put down the games (electronic and otherwise) and to switch off our phones. We turn back—repentance in this case is also reconciliation—to listen, to watch, to pay attention to this word, this conversation, this very moment.

While the Bible tells us that strangers may be angels and far away lands the precincts of promise, the corollary is that if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, members of our own family, folks in our circle of friends, even people in our classes and congregation may be the flesh of God’s abiding word, and this very place a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. If so, whether at Olive Garden, old First Church or the dinner table, we hearken to other siren voices (or eat only alone) at our spiritual peril.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Post-Partum Depression

These are the good times, as our good friends at the Catchup (sic) Advisory Board would say, but I can't help this nagging sense of sadness around the edges--and maybe more nearly in the heart--of things.

My counselor friend, Todd, says I have dysthemia, a recently named emotional condition, a kind of neurosis, actually. The difference between a psychosis and a neurosis is this: whereas psychosis says "two plus two equals Raleigh, NC," neurosis says, "two plus two equals four,but I am not happy about it." Dysthemia, then, manifests itself basically this way: there is no day so bright that I cannot find a dark cloud somewhere on the horizon or over my head.

If I have 150 in worhship, for example, I wonder why it is not 160 or 200 or why the Joneses are not in their usual spot. It all feels personal, too--an intentional slight or insult that God, the universe, my church members are perpetrating on me.

And so I have this article which came out in Christian Century. I am thrilled, right? Except I am worried I will never be published there again, that the people I most want to see that I had an article published in Christian Century did not see it (and why is it considered poor form to send out an announcement?), that there is no link to the article (though there are links to other articles in the issue, dated August 22)...see how it goes?

It is pretty maddening, actually, and not only to me. My wife gets pretty tired of it, all in all. One of my two best friends in ministry (and why do I have only TWO good friends in ministry, his dysthemia asked) is a district superintendent in Georgia, and he gets annoyed too: "If you are not happy NOW, with a book and an article and endorsements by Buechner, Winner, and Long, you will NEVER be happy." I guess he is right, but my publisher misspelled one of the endorsers' names on the inside flyleaf and left off Tom Long's altogether. "I did not really know who he was," the girl at the publisher said, so WHY NOT ASK ME I replied, but only to myself.

Perhaps this is what the Fathers meant by sloth--distraction. Or maybe it is related to despair. Or lust. Or envy. I cannot sort out or untangle all the ways sin is active in my dysthemia and dysfunction, or whether I am guilty or sick, but the effect is the same.

And so now at least five members of the editorial and marketing team of my publisher have jumped ship in the last couple of weeks. I am afraid that my little book with float away with the rest of the flotsam. I need to go to the home office to meet some people, as I now know NO ONE who works there.

My book is coming out! Yeah!!

But there is a depression that comes with it, no extra charge.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Buechner and Me

I was thinking today of the first time I "met" Frederick Buechner. I was in seminary, unhappily married, an emotional wreck--and not suicidal, I do not think, but so deep in a hole that I could not see light.

At our campus bookstore, by Chance, I had picked up The Alphabet of Grace, a book Buechner had published some seven years before, and one night I got in the bathtub--where I do all my most serious reading--and devoured it.

I still have the slim volume on my desk and if you open it you will see two things: massive amounts of red ink with which I underlined almost everything, and little blotches, water stains, but whether of tub water or tears is now a guess. I suspect mostly the latter.

It was as if someone--Buechner himself or Someone--had thrown a rope down into the hole to gather me back up. I was better, though I did not know how or why. I sat down the next morning and wrote him a letter, "Frederick Buechner, c/o Seabury Press," unsure as to whether he would even receive the thing, but needing anyway to tell him what he had done for me, long years after setting his pen to that particular paper, how even through time his words had somehow spoken to me and for me and how much I loved him without even knowing him and how much he had blessed me, without knowing me from Adam's cat.

A few weeks later I received in the mail a letter from Pawlet, VT, addressed in Buechner's almost illegible scrawl, my name written by his hand and inside two pages of blessings and peace. It took me over an hour to decipher and translate--things that good are worth working for--and at the end I felt a glow, as if I had been standing barefoot near a bush that burned and was not consumed. Not to overstate the case, but it may have been the turning point of my life.

After that I began hoping that I, too, could write. I read all Buechner had written and shamelessly imitated him for long years, cribbing his style but never approaching his genius or spirit, nor his insight. I would write to him now and then, he would always respond--not as voluminously as that first time, but always with generosity. I sent him the articles and reviews I wrote of his work for this journal or that, most recently a review of his Secrets in the Dark (, and again he was always most kind. At Grand Rapids a couple of years ago, during the Festival of Faith and Writing, I had the good fortune to introduce him to Barbara Brown Taylor, her to him, and there I stood in the between two legends--glowing again, I am sure.

Since that night in the tub Buechner has been more to me than a writer, more than an hero, more than an occasional correspondent--more like an icon, written large on my mind and soul, a channel of grace. He is indeed larger than life in my life, and I speak his name with only reverent familiarity.

I tell you all this because on yesterday the first copy of my new book arrived at my house: Praying For Dear Life: A Reason to Rise, Strength for the Day, Courage to Face the Night
(NavPress, 2006;, and right there under my name on the front cover is this: "...a treasure from start to finish...Frederick Buechner"

I cannot tell you what that means to me, not just that he seemed to like it (the rest of the blurb is on the back cover) but that HE is there with ME on this book, a book over which I labored so long and as I typed away he was always somewhere in my consciousness as inspiration and example. For twenty-five years now I have wanted to be a "real" writer, with a "real" book to my credit, and if Buechner first awakened in me the notion that I might be a writer, that writing could be a part of my ministry, he is there with me also at the end, to bless with his name and his words my work.

Long ago, before he knew me, he set pen to paper to help me. Not only me, of course, but me among the rest. And now he has done it once again, set his pen to paper, written his name next to mine, to claim me and bless me and send my book, my heart's work, on its way.

Grace upon Grace. The Peace of Christ. Memory and Hope.

Thanks, Fred. For everything.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Thoughts taken from an email to a friend...

Frederick Buechner says that "nothing human is ever uncomplicated." I do so agree, and therefore am loathe to speak further about the situation in the Middle East. I will defer, instead, to David Grossman.

On Bill Moyers "Faith and Reason," David Grossman--an Israeli novelist who has done a recent work on Samson, wherein he compares Samson with Israel itself, suggests (as I heard it) that Israel is in danger of becoming what it has long fought and tried to protect itself against. If you go to Moyers' Faith and Reason website, and click on David Grossman, you can listen to/see the entire interview.

Relatedly, I am wondering is if, in today's political climate, it is possible to be critical of Israel, it's policies and its warring, without being labeled an anti-Semite. So many people are so quick to play the racism card. And WHY is Mel Gibson's DUI, and his drunken chatter, more interesting than the rest of the world's news--at least according to CNN's website banner.

Relatedly, is it possible to criticize our own government, its policies and its warrings, without being labeled with some culture-wars adjective? As William Sloane Coffin said, "A patriot, always; a nationalist, never." Where are the voices from the middle? Drowned out by the ones coming from either side, as always.

Joining some of my friends, I do wish Jesus would come back...NOW! But I am persuaded that that much of many people's hope in that theological perspective is misplaced. A new book on the millenarian theologies of which the Left Behind series (preeminently) as well as Jack Van Impe and Hal Lindsay and the rest are a part suggests that that particular view of God's action in the world is exactly backwards, that "God's purpose is not to remove Christians from the world in order to destroy it, but that like Christ they are to enter the world to redeem it" (Barbara Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Boulder: Westview, 2004. ISBN: 0-8133-9156-3). God always sends his people into the struggle for justice, rather than exempting them--Jesus' Incarnation is the ultimate proof. I suspect that my desire for escape from the fray is just that...and while I feel it more most every day I confess it is mostly based in fear for myself and, especially, my kids.

I hope you, dear reader, have seen Second Hand Lions. I saw it again the other night, having forgotten how wonderful it is, and especially Robert Duvall's line about the most important things in life having to do with matters that cannot conclusively be proved right or wrong. GREAT movie.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Lament for Lebanon

Pray for the children of Abraham.

I, as you, have watched in horror this week as pictures emerged from the latest fighting in Lebanon. The heirs of Abraham are once again at war. The sons of Ishmael (the Muslims) and the sons of Isaac (the Jews), each with their own logic and fierce rhetoric, are hard at work trying to destroy the other. Would to God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, yes, and the God of Ishmael, too (see Genesis 21:12-21)—that it were not so.

I am no student of modern geopolitics. When it comes to “the ways of the world,” I guess I am about as naïve as they come. But I am a student of scripture and I know a least a little concerning the ways and purposes of God—and I am persuaded that no matter how often or passionately these or any of the worlds’ various combatants invoke the blessing or “will of God,” God neither intends nor honors the killing of children. Of that, at least, I am sure. And if the killing of any one nation’s children is a horror never to be forgotten, we must remember with anguish and repentance the deaths of all children.

I keep wishing that the heirs of Abraham would be quick to follow his example. Do you remember that time when Abraham (or Abram as he was called then) and his nephew lot were coming up from Egypt into the Negeb (to the south of Judah). Both men were rich, having herds and servants and much gold. It soon became apparent that they were richer than the land—that is, the land was not able to support the both of them. And there were others peoples in the area as well, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. All told, there were too many sheep and not enough grass, too many mouths and not enough water. And so it was that there was “strife” between the servants of Abram and the servants of Lot (not to mention the Canaanites and Perizzites).

Abram, bless his heart, surveyed the situation and uttered immortal words: “Let there be no strife between you and me, between your headsmen and my herdsmen: for we are kin.” To Abram, family and peace were more to be fought for than any land, even if that meant surrender, and so he said to his nephew, “Take what you want and I will make do with the rest.” That is just the way it happened: Lot, his family and servants, journeyed to the fertile area near the Jordan River, in the precincts of Sodom, while Abram took the dryer and more inhospitable land called Canaan.

Abram ceded land for the sake of peace. It may be an oversimplified and naïve hope that his heirs on both sides of the family tree might find a way to do the same. But as I look at the pictures of the dead—children, women, old men—I have wondered this: what price “security”? Tell me: who made “survival” the greatest good? And I have wondered why none of the children of Abram are willing to invoke the old man now and say, “Let there be no strife between us, for we are kin.”

Why we are so quick to forget how Jesus—another child of Abraham so that we who follow him are likewise—said that his disciples are those who love their enemies, who willingly lay down their lives for others? But how very different that looks from so many of the pictures we’ve seen.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Save on Trinity Sunday

I can still remember coming in from school, walking home from Crieve Hall Elementary, stepping through the back door to see that a remarkable transformation had occurred since that morning. In our back den, the hub and hive of all things in our family, all the furniture had been moved out, and replaced by a great wooden frame—a couple of saw horses and long side beams that must have been five or six feet long. White fabric ws stretched across the frame, a sandwich, really—one layer of linen, and another, separated by a padding of cotton—it was a quilting rack, of course.

I can still remember the way my pulse would quicken because if there was a quilting rack set up in the den, that meant my grandmother’s sisters were there too. Memie, that was my grandmother, she lived to be 104 and a week; her older sister was Nanny, my favorite, elegant and funny; and Cokie, the youngest, who looked and acted the oldest, sour expression, grunting with her every step. Cokie—we sometimes called her Pokey because she moved so slowly—she made the best jam cakes in the history of the world.

You ever had a jam cake? Blackberry jam. And it would come out of the oven and she would put some kind of sugary icing on it and there was nothing pokey about the way we went for our forks and dug in, sometimes without even slicing it first. Just ate it whole right off the cake plate. Nanny and Memie tried to duplicate the recipe. Mom tried to duplicate the recipe. Cokie gave them the recipe—she said—but it was never the same. The sisters and nieces think Cokie held out on them, for some reason, did not include a crucial ingredient or something, took the secret to her grave.

Whatever intrigue characterized the kitchen, there was none of that at the quilting rack. And I loved to watch them, all three of them, sitting here or there, stitching a while, intricate and delicate and amazing hand work, sometimes talking amongst themselves, sometimes silent except for Cokie’s grunting, and then one of them, or two of them, or all three as if on cue would move their chairs to start working somewhere else. I could never tell exactly what they were doing, of course, and sometimes it looked like they were stitching in the same places over and over again. Day after day I would come in from school to find them at their work, check their progress, and for the longest time it looked like random stuff, haphazard patterns.

But there came a day, there always came a day, when I would come in after school and see that it all made sense, that it all worked, that the random and the haphazard were not that at all but were part of a plan and design that my elementary-age eyes simply could not recognize.

Theirs was a craft beyond me. They knew what they were doing. I was only watching. They crafted a quilt that would keep me warm on a cold winter’s night, and into that quilt they poured their years of experience and skill and love… sometimes when they were working they would poke themselves with a needle, and on one or two of those quilts, if you know where to look, you can still see the tiniest trace of blood, evidence of their love and work. And then, the work would be finished and the quilt rack put away till next time—if there was one. They worked on each quilt as if it were their last one, and then they went home and I would miss them till the next time when I would see the quilt rack and smell the jam cake and know that something wondrous was going on.

Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is when we Christians proclaim the fullness of God, the inner life, the inner relationship of God, as it has gradually been revealed to us: Father, Son, Holy Spirit: eternally one and eternally distinct, one God in three persons, three ways of knowing and experiencing the One eternal God.
It is a mystery, this doctrine of ours: and a mystery, as Augustine said it, a true mystery, is something that one cannot know unless it is revealed to you, and even after you know it, after it is revealed to you, you cannot explain it.

The Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—is a mystery to us in just that way, but it is revealed to us through Creation, through Salvation, through abiding presence.
In the beginning, when there was nothing but darkness and chaos and void, God spoke, said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Only later did we realize that the Word by which God created the world was the eternal Word, the Word that would become flesh and dwell among us. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God; all things were created by that Word and apart from that Word nothing was made that has been made. That Word came among us, full of grace and truth, took on our flesh, lived our life, died our death, sanctified all our beginnings and endings. Before every birth: God. After every death: God. In every life and moment: God(Credo, William Sloane Coffin).

Only later did we realize that in creation, as the Word was being spoken, God’s Spirit was moving on the face of the deep, that God’s Spirit came upon the prophets that they might proclaim God’s will, that God’s spirit came upon a virgin who conceived and bore a Son who was the Word made flesh.

Our elementary eyes have only gradually come to see what God has been doing all along, Only gradually have our eyes come to see WHO God has been all along.

I can’t explain it, I can only point to it. I can tell you the story of my grandmother and her two sisters, and it is not a perfect analogy by any means, but it pleases me—it pleases me--to think of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, each of them and all of them together fussing over our world, working here and there, sewing, stitching, unstitching, hurting themselves now and then so that if we know where to look we see the blood stains that prove their once and future love.

There is a cake in the oven, too, and no ingredients are missing and soon enough all of us will dig in and wolf-down that delicious eternal confection, but until then we get up and we go to work and we go to school and we come home again to see that there seems to be something going on but we cannot quite yet tell what it is… just a random pattern, it seems, a haphazard attention, but One Day we will see that they knew what they were doing all along.

I cannot explain it; all the explanations are inadequate and even idolatrous: water, ice, steam; apple, peel, core; father, husband, brother. None of that is helpful, not very. But we know it. We can feel it—which is to say that when it is explained to us it rings eternally true: there is more going on in the world than we can domesticate; there is more to God than we can ever imagine or manage; there is more to God’s way in the world than we can see or understand or recognize right now, our eyes being as young and inexperienced as they are. Day by day we see just little parts of it.

But day by day they keep working. Here, there. Sometimes silently, sometimes not. And soon, one day soon, there will be a world that will keep us all warm and fed and blessed and at peace. They know what they are doing; I believe that. They are crafting something wondrous, pouring their years of experience and skill and love into the world, for us.

Leslie Newbigin tells of visiting the Fountain Abbey, ruined home to the Cistercian or White Monks, and how there was this placque in the chancel noting that the Monks offered silent praise and adoration, instead of sermons, on Trinity Sunday, “owing to the difficulty of the topic.”

And yes, in one way, it is difficult. Very difficult. A mystery.
n another way, though, as Eugene Peterson says, it is the most practical doctrine of all, and the simplest: the doctrine of the Trinity, this gradually revealed awareness of the fullness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, tell us that there is always more of God than we know, always more of God than we can explain, always more of God than we can show. Trinity says God is not in a box, is bigger than we imagine, is more powerful than we sometimes want to believe or remember.

Do you remember the text from Isaiah 6? How, in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw God high and lifted up, and the hem of God's robe filling the Temple? Do you remember Isaiah's reaction?

The German philosopher Goethe said that when we humans are overmatched—as Isaiah was in the Temple—when we are faced with and experience a reality that is clearly superior to us, our only defense is love. Love of God is worship.

The truth of the Trinity leaves us with one option: to worship. To look and celebrate. To smell the cake and sing. To know we are in over our heads, and that is a good thing.

The Trinity reminds us that God is not at our disposal, we are at God's. That “God” is not a word we tack onto the end of our speeches, but rather the Word who grafts us into God's purposes. That God is moving even now on the face of the chaos and war, the hunger and homelessness, the confusion and hatred—even now stitching and restitching sense and light and purpose into the fabric of our world.

I hope that there are times you have known you were in over your head. That this God we worship is no trifling reality, but Lord of the Universe, blessed be he. I hope that you have been worried about God's anger, amazed by God's grace, befuddled by God's abiding presence (and seeming absence), humbled by God's might. If you have, you know something of the Trinity.
Before every birth: God. After every death: God. In every life and moment: God. You can’t explain it, it is a mystery; but you can look around, point to it: even now the furniture is being rearranged and there is a smell of feasting in the air.

God’s making something wonderful, something lasting, just for us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The DaVinci Cold

I am getting to the point where I sneeze and cough every time I hear "Da Vinci"... allergies begin with overexposure, I am told.

Still, this needs to be said: the only upsetting thing about Dan Brown's beach-reading page-turner is that it is upsetting anyone. False teaching? Well, maybe. More like nonsense to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the New Testament and early Christianity. But nonsense is a staple of fiction--believable enough to be interesting, but not believable enough to be unsettling. And to those who want to believe the Church is evil, well, this proves it, huh? But only to those predisposed.

But isn't Dan Brown in a great position? He can fire-off whatever half-baked criticisms he has and if anyone challenges him he says, "Hey, it's a novel!" Nice.

Oh, and I understand he read thirty-nine books while researching. THIRTY-NINE... why, that hardly makes a good freshman theme, much less a scholarly credential.

I do think it interesting the similarity between The Da Vinci Code and The Left Behind Series: that there are secrets which a few know, but only a few, lest someone reveal them to you. That, my friends, is classic Gnosticism (see the most The Christian Century for more on this withering insight).

On Faith and Language

Further reflections on the Writing as Pastoral and Spiritual Practice seminar:

I survived my time of scrutiny, but barely. Actually, it went much better than it might have given the tone and tenor of comments made there throughout the week. I speak the language of Zion, and around me are many who while retaining their orders and their pulpits are not themselves, so far as I can see, nourished by the worship life of the church or the liturgy or even the gospel. I have heard Gary Wills say something to the effect that much professional theological scholarship is a clever attempt to say Jesus didn’t really mean it. He, meaning Wills, encouraged us to read the text as is. Having said that, of course, he went on to dismiss the doctrine of Hell in the same way we have dismissed the supposed biblical justifications for slavery which were ascendant in the 17th and 18th centuries. Or, though he did not mention it, the exclusion from ordination of women based on the gender-valued patriarchy of the scriptures.

I would say that some of what is going on here is the same… a clever, erudite, sophisticated attempt to reinvent or reimagine or reconfigure the language in such a way that it does not mean anymore what it says. Or something. I have gone to lengths this week to argue, and especially with Tracey and Rochelle, that just because the application of a text is bad, that does not mean the text itself is bad. Just because patriarchy has been used against women does not mean that “Father” is immaterial to the New Testament understanding of God.

I finally said today, “I understand and well that there are times when invoking God as Father may be problematic or oppressive; I guess I want to know if there is ever a time when that term does more than make you quit listening.” I did not say it that harshly and I do not think they took offense. It is a genuine problem.

Rochelle was more nettlesome, though not so much to me. She actually blessed my prose in places, though she took issue with the abundance of biblical and scriptural words with which I salt my writing. She was fairly condescending, though, to one of our colleagues who was writing about the various historical Atonement theories, dismissing him with the wave of a hand: “It would help you to read Proverbs of Ashes which explores how traditional theories of the Atonement are irrelevant at best and oppressive at worst…” (and wherein, I must say, "sacrifice" and "victimization" are hopelessly and uncritically confused and admittedly tragic personal experience always trumps the various traditions and best understandings of doctrine). "It would help you to read…” As if he is unschooled or unaware. Maybe he and I are just the ignorant old bald guys in the group, the Neanderthals, the symbols of what is wrong with the church.

But what is interesting is that in the name of inclusion those of us in the “center” and not on the edge are marginalized as the edge becomes the center. I guess this theological solstice helps me to understand a bit better how these and other women have felt for a very long time, and also some of the battles to be heard they have had to fight through the years. I think, though, that the abiding irony escapes them—there is a sense in which they are now the power-brokers, the magisterium, the truth-tellers and guys like Michael and I are consequently silenced.

I am sure that is an overstatement and unfair.

I did manage to speak a word to the wonder of John Baillie’s prayer language--which is also featured in my writing here and there, to many as unintelligible as glossolalia and to me just as miraculous, which saved my life, in fact. I said all of that when another participant opined that my prose seemed forced and affected and stilted with Elizabethan biblicisms. The word Byzantine was used in there somewhere, too. I told the group that it was the power of the rhetoric itself which helped me think of something old in a different way, that helped me learn to pray. Lauren said that for the last ten years the mode of spiritual memoir has been that of a fellow pilgrim, but that she felt like we needed someone at least to teach us, at least sometimes. I am sure she was not talking about me, of course, but I felt a bit of vindication.

I heard Michael Wyatt again, and managed to have some conversation with him afterwards for almost half an hour. I really like him. He is the priest who presided at Tuesday morning Eucharist. Anyway, we talked about the conference, my frustration with the segregated nature of it and the fact that we are not really talking about spiritual practice or formation but only about craft and publishing (important, of course, but there should be some room for the other given the fact that that is what it is called!). I told him I could see a program built around Writing as Prayer: Writing as Confession, as Praise, as Intercession, as Petition and Thanksgiving. He seemed to like the idea a lot and thought that he might mention to Bill our doing something along that line in the next couple of days. I told him of my book, he was interested and so I gave him one of the sample chapters (in which I today found three typos!). I also gave a copy to all my colleagues, for better or worse.

I do need to explore this sense of not fitting. I did not fit as a Baptist--was in many ways too liberal and liturgical. Now, I do not seem to fit as a United Methodist--am in many ways too conservative and too biblical, too evangelical (it coule be argued that Wesley himself would no longer fit in our church, but that may be self-congratulatory). I only mean that I do not seem to fit with, nor can I echo, the prevailing voices of the church right now, or at least the voices that prevail around the table in our seminar. I am too emotional, too pious, too churcy, too Byzantine, whatever. I don’t seem to fit anywhere. I only hope I am fit for the kingdom.

At dinner the last night, Lauren said that the hour when my material was considered was the most uncomfortable hour in the week as far as she was concerned. I suggested the irony that in the name of inclusivisity Michael and I had been excluded because of our traditional understandings and appreciations of the faith. I suggested that while there were many at the table who were running as hard as they could away from the language and heritage of faith, I was one who was trying to learn more of it and immerse myself more deeply in it. I told her that I was the only one, as near as I could tell, who was told their writing was off-putting--and that from a writer who said she had the "beauty of the whole universe flowing in her heart"!

Anyway, that conversation proved quite cathartic—I had to leave the table, crying—but I also mentioned how powerful Evensong was for me just before dinner, when the Gospel reading said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this evil and adulterous generation, of them will I also be ashamed.” I am not ashamed of the word Father, or Lord, or King or kingdom, because those are Jesus’ words! I do not want to be condescending or elitist, but I am not ashamed of the traditional language. I am not ashamed of Jesus or his words in this confused and "tolerant" (!) generation. Luther started a Reformation not because he hated the church but because he loved it, felt it was in error. That is different, I think, than saying the church is erroneous.

Evensong, dinner, where Lauren told me she had agreed to blurb my first book. She is also very interested in my second book, and I think her comments tonight will help me frame my proposal. After dinner we had an informal conversation in one of the lounges where Lauren took on one of the women who had been unkind to me. I do not think she did it for any reason—she wasn’t trying to hold my hand or anything—but she did say earlier that she had been more in agreement with me than with my critics and I think she just wanted to stake-out her own territory.

In Memoriam: Kathy Stephenson

I just heard from Jacob that Kathy Stephenson died this morning about two. God rest her weary, weary soul. God raise her up on the Last Day. God bless Rick and Karmen and Kandace. God bless Jacob, my poor son, in his grief. God bless Pam and Stephanie Huggins. God bless Jimmy and the youth group. God bless MUMC and Cam and all who are touched by her passing, as indeed all of us are touched by every passing whether we realize it or not.

Jacob sent me an email: don’t be alarmed, but of course I was. I am fine, he said, but of course he wasn’t. He is torn up. Mom is fine, everything is fine (he didn’t mention Bethany and so naturally my mind went there immediately, but he was panicked, grief-stricken, broken hearted and unable to reach me as I had left my phone in the room). I was getting ready to send this e-diary to him and Jo and Bethany when I got his brief, urgent, cryptic: I need to talk to you right now. I ran to the room, got the phone, called, heard his tears and his plea. “They really want you to do the funeral,” he said. Might there be a way for me to leave early, for him and Jo to come get me, because “Saturday is too late for the funeral.”

I know that Jacob, too, really wants me to do this funeral, but I cannot—and honestly do not want to—leave this conference early. That is not selfishness on my part, I do not believe; just the acknowledgment that I need to be here right now, doing this thing that I feel called right now to do—this thing that seems such a gift from God to me—and that I may never have this time, this opportunity, again. I remember that when the sisters sent word to Jesus to come, that Lazarus was sick and dying, he did not go right away. He went, but later. I will go, too—though I be helpless before Kathy’s dying—and some may be aggrieved at my tardiness, fuss at me a little. I hope not. I don’t really think they will.

Still, it is the abiding paradox: how to care for oneself and others, how to love your neighbor as yourself, but love yourself enough to be able to love and not resent the needs of your neighbor. I loved Kathy, wrote about her in my book. I grieve her passing. I could be there if I would, I guess, but for the next few days this is my place. This is my call and my work. This is my job and my joy.

May Kathy and I both rest in peace. And Jacob. Rick, Karmen and Kandace, too.

ediary: Writing as Spiritual Practice

Recently I attended a writing conference in Washington. It was clear very early on that there were many agendas around the table, many angry or rebellious voices, and folk who one way or the other are “past” church or doctrines or creeds, running as hard they can away from, working hard as they can to get out of the tradition, while I, and perhaps a few others, are seeking to go deeper, get closer.

One woman, Dean of an Episcopal Cathedral, went to great lengths to talk about how she is excising sections of the Gospel she finds offensive, is changing the Palm and Passion Sunday liturgy because it is anti-Semitic, she says, and because she considers it all too Triumphalist. I understand what she means but on the second night at supper, after about another 15 minutes of her condescending justifications, I took a chance and questioned her as to why it is that all other religious traditions are encouraged to tell their story in all its particularity and even its ugliness--calling out names as they go with regard to crusades and missionaries and such--but we Christians are shushed in corresponding proportion.

It actually led to decent discussion and I was gratified that Lauren Winner more or less agreed with me. She did say that she thought it important to repudiate, and immediately, how such scriptures have been used to foster anti-Semitism, etc., but she agreed with me (I think) that to excise portions of canon is presumptuous at the very least, and also that to name Caiaphas or Annas or THAT council at that time is not the same thing as saying ALL Jews are Christ-killers or anything heinous and ugly as that.

We have to be free to tell our story, too, it seems to me, or we cease to be a people of the Story.

Between the afternoon session and dinner I went to the Cathedral proper, into the Great Choir, for Evensong. I was absolutely amazed, blessed, astounded, humbled. The men’s choir of the Cathedral sang and chanted. Very gothic. Very cool in the enormous vaulted granite worship area, and yet in the Great Choir it almost felt cozy. We sat in rows facing each other across the terrazzo. It felt like heaven to me, really, or what I can imagine heaven might for someone like me be (perhaps that image is not such a blessing to everyone): those measured, melodic, harmonic voices singing ancient praise to God, a slight echo off the High Altar whose gold cross was draped entirely with purple something. All the crosses in the Cathedral were draped just so.

I was in tears much of the time. The windows, the architecture—I think I must have lived in the medieval period in another life. There is something about all of that that just speaks to me.
(The College, too, is so interesting in its architecture—is it Gothic? Baroque?—and its accouterments: all these famous Anglcan divines with their huge collars, prominent chins and tiny hands. All the people who work here, all the pictures on the wall, are so easily recognized as Anglican. Tall, sophisticated, noble in carriage, erudite.)

The organist for Evensong was, as you would expect, extraordinary—but very restrained. That is an important word here, or at least important to me as I reflect on this experience and my context—restrained. Liturgy restrains and writing restrains and faith restrains—they all liberate, of course, and amazingly so, but they also restrain.

That is a blessing, I am convinced, for God too is restrained and so some measure of restraint takes a part in the nature of God. Who could stand God’s unmitigated presence?

I found myself praying, once again, as John Chrysostom prayed,

“Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us, granting us in this world knowledge of your truth and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.”

Eucharist in Bethlehem Chapel. We got off to an inauspicious beginning when somebody unseen from somewhere behind the altar dropped something BIG—something aluminum, maybe, which clattered till it sizzled, like an unending cymbal. Even during the service there was clatter, footsteps, hammering, maybe, a staccato interlude now and then throughout. And still…

It was amazing. Michael Wyatt, who is Canon Theologian of the Cathedral, was the celebrant. Watching him as he performed the Eucharistic Rite was almost enough to make me want to be Episcopalian. It was beautiful to watch. Just beautiful. But I was already impressed. In his brief meditation he spoke about two of the “healing” stories in John, the first that of the lame man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5) and the second the healing of the man born blind (John 9). Of the first, he said, while it is a healing it is simultaneously a picture of each of us who are forever ready to abdicate responsibility for ourselves. “Do you want to be well?” Jesus asks the lame man. “I have no one to put me in the water,” the man replies. Jesus heals him, tells him to take up his mat and go his way. When the Jewish leaders confront him about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, the man replies, “The man who made me well told me to do it.” When they ask him who, he said, “I don’t know.” And then, later, when he discovered Jesus’ name, he went and told the Jewish authorities, betraying his healing, unable to claim the implicit invitation, never taking responsibility. God’s grace is deeper even that that, Canon Wyatt said, even when we abdicate, when we choose to remain ignorant, when we curse our blessing (not his words, but close).

The man born blind, on the other hand, knows himself: I was blind and now I see. He knows it so well he can claim his new identity on account of Christ and testify to it. People around him are not sure whether he is, still, who they thought he was—even his parents are paralyzed and confused—but he speaks for himself and teaches the teachers of the law. They say, “This man was born in utter sin.” The man says, “Well here is something unknown from the foundations of the world, a sinner who restores sight to the blind.” Claiming his healing, his identity in Christ, gives him courage and wisdom, light and life, sight and sense. The whole homily lasted maybe five minutes. It was wonderful!

And then he did the Eucharistic Prayer. It was beautiful, a holy dance, full of gesture and symbol and meaning. I just wanted to watch him do it again. Upon leaving Bethlehem chapel I saw robins flying around the tops of the columns. That, last night’s Evensong, this morning’s Eucharistic prayer and meditation, and wonder of this week made me think immediately of Psalm 84:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for her young,
At your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.Happy are those whose strength is in you…

Thomas--that is my name

I was recently in Washington for a writers' conference. There is much to say about that, and I will share a couple of insights... but first, this: I was in Lauren Winner's small group and she had us do an exercise, ten minutes, on our names. For better or worse, this is what Iwrote:

Thomas—for the doubter, twin sons of different mothers, different times. My grandfather was a Tom, too, a railroad engineer, always between places, with a powerful engine beneath him but governed by uncompromising tracks. A boozer, probably; a philanderer, I’ve heard. Made his peace with Jesus before he died, the cancer an open sore and putrid, a sweet aroma to God.

Ray—for my dad. Just Ray. Thank God not Lassister, which was his given name and pronounced Lassiter, but even at that not his legal name. Born at home, his mother, Mama Steagald, sent the neighbor girl with news of his birth to the courthouse, there to register her newborn pup, the last of the litter, sixth of six. The girl wrote “Raymond Ovis” on the birth certificate, after her boyfriend at the time. Dad never knew who he was, not till he was drafted into WWII. The Army pulled him aside: “Raymond Ovis?” strong-armed him when he didn’t answer to what he didn’t know was on his paper. He had to pay, hire and lawyer and pay, hire a lawyer and go to court and pay to have it put back right.

Steagald—it is pronounced STEE-gald, and when people get it wrong, the telemarketers and parishioners, my students and my bishop, I feel wrong. Like they know better than I. Like I don’t know who I am. Like I don’t know what to believe. Like Thomas. Like Ray. Like all the Steagalds.

Friday, March 24, 2006


God loved so much he gave his only-begotten Son; we love so little we give not even the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Wandering Aramean...

Pilgrims long remember, I think, what settlers soon forget.

Settlers imagine that good fences make good neighbors, that “their” property is theirs and private. Pilgrims, on the other hand, know that shared hope, a common vision, and the pooling of resources make for real community. If settlers imagine that they are self-sufficient, that their own strength and wisdom have gotten them this far, pilgrims know they must continually rely on each other, and on the daily provision of God, to get them anywhere at all. Rich fools build barns; thankful pilgrims build altars.

I have been thinking since Sunday about such things, and what started it was this: our Church School class was temporarily displaced. Some weeks ago, so that God’s Kids could have a permanent home (we were happy to make the sacrifice!), we moved from the old Wesley class to the Fellowship Hall. But on this past Sunday the UMW had set-up for that delicious lunch (and let us be clear: we were happy about that too! Yum!), and so we were left looking for a place to pray and study. The sanctuary? No. Debs was practicing. The choir room? No, that room would be occupied soon enough. My office? Too small. And so, if you saw about 20 people kind of wandering around in the halls of the building, a bit bewildered, it was we—the Wesley Class.

Not to be too melodramatic or presumptuous, but I think we had—at least let me say I had, if only a little and just for a moment—the slightest inkling of how Palestinians and many homeless others feel. It was good for us—at least let me say it was good for me—in that little way to walk a few little steps in the shoes of refugees.

We finally found a place (the Promised Land!) and, settled in, began talking about our poor lost world and what we might do about it—bringing people to Christ, bringing Christ to the world. It is a big question, of course, with many answers, but I am thinking that one crucial thing we can do for the homeless, broken and warring world is to build a safe place, a healing place, a “home” place where people can find refuge and peace. A place where people can bring their darkness into God’s light—a place where death gives way to life, where confession is practiced, where forgiveness is sure. The kingdom of God is like a bush, Jesus said, where the birds of the air can build nests: the church is like a shelter, a way station, a safe house, a hospital.

I suggested that one of the reasons many churches have trouble bringing people to Christ is that the churches themselves do not look or behave so very different from the rest of world. That to say, many churches are just as fractious, just as territorial, just as prejudiced and privatized as any other group of “settlers”—and very clear as to who the “homefolk” are and who are the strangers. That kind of stratification may be attractive to the gentry, but Jesus built his church on the foundation of fishermen and the feckless, tax collectors and revolutionaries.

I reached back for a phrase I wrote about in this space some months ago, now—and suggested that for our church to grow, to be more of what we want to be and in some ways already see, we need to be “Jesus to each other and Christ for the world.” That definition of church comes from the pen of Robert Benson and would make for a great tee shirt, or mission statement, or program strategy: we will be Jesus to each other—calling, teaching, reminding, rebuking if need be and always forgiving; and we will be Christ for the world—inviting, welcoming, sharing, feeding, baptizing and instructing. Jesus for each other and Christ for the world, and always remembering the lessons we learned when we were “on the road,” when we had no place till we came to this place, relying only on each other and the daily provision of God, building our altars in thanks.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Lenten Meditation on Galatians 5:15

Long ago I heard a summation—a post-mortem, actually—of the Nixon Administration. It came at the end of a lengthy documentary highlighting the rise and fall of the Nixon White House. The last clip on the screen was that famous shot of the disgraced president waving goodbye from the steps of his helicopter. A somber voice-over opined that, in the end, Nixon’s Administration “was characterized by grand vision and petty grievance.”

By “grand vision” the journalist meant that in terms of foreign policy Nixon and his aides could see what the rest of us then couldn’t. They had a global perspective on commerce and security which, though radical in those days, we now take pretty much for granted. The trip to China—a move unparalleled in American and perhaps world politics—helped open wide the doors to that whole side of the world.

But there was also “petty grievance,” by which the journalist suggested that Nixon and his aides viewed domestic policy through a lens of “enemies list” paranoia and “micro-worry.” They “saw” loyal political dissent and idealistic college protest as part of a great and dangerous conspiracy arrayed against them. A basic mistrust of the American people, the media and the democratic process prompted Nixon and his aides to engineer and then cover-up all the various break-ins and dirty tricks.

“Grand vision and petty grievance,” and in the long-run it is not hard to imagine that the pettiness is what we remember best and will. Why? Perhaps because the “grand vision” eventually became mainstream common sense—the way everyone looks at things—and it is hard to remember to give Mr. Nixon the credit he deserves. Conversely, the break-ins and dirty tricks defied all sense then and still do, even as they remain a unique paragraph in modern presidential history: the absolute cause of his abbreviated term in office.

As the voice-over ended the helicopter was disappearing over the trees, ferrying Mr. Nixon into political exile. The picture faded to gray and then to black.

I offer that not as partisan political commentary, but simply to suggest that churches and ministries can be ruined by the same ironic bipolarity suggested by the documentary. We Christians are indeed possessed of a grand vision, see what the unbelieving world can’t but will: all people at peace in the presence of God. Jesus calls us into God’s once and future work of peace-making—we have been entrusted with the “ministry and message of reconciliation,” Paul says, “God making his appeal to the world through us.” And it is our essential domestic unity—our living, growing fellowship of real forgiveness and spiritual friendship (the unity for which Jesus prayed)—which testifies to God’s peaceful plan for all his children. The peace of God begins with us who share the peace of Christ.

How tragic then when that grand vision for the world is betrayed or even destroyed by petty grievance at home. When Christ’s chosen do not choose to forgive one another, or bless one another, trust one another or speak the truth in love… when we compile, as it were, enemies lists or ransack the reputations of our brothers and sisters on account of jealousies and grudges and personal agendas… then we should not be surprised if our work is cut short and our pettiness all anyone can seem to remember as we fade to gray and then to black.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Lent is upon us, a time for spiritual spring cleaning. Today I imposed ashes on the foreheads of some fifty Stanley saints, and there were many other such services in and around these precints today.

I have no way of knowing, exactly, what all of those who were "imoposed" did immediately afterwards--here or anywhere else--but I am guessing that some of the faithful went to the nearest lavatory and washed-off the smudge. They were on their way to work or the Y; they had to go to the store of the school and they did not want to draw attention to themselves or what they had been doing beforehand. Who can blame them? I know from experience, and some of it today's, that going into the gas station, say, or the Hardee's with a black cross on your brow is a sure way to draw stares and smirks.

Those who practice today's discipline should be careful, then--for if it is a bit of cowardice to remove so quickly the sign of the season, it can be pride to wear it too long or to obviously. Or for the wrong reasons.

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." which is not the same thing as if Jesus had said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others at all." Jesus seems to want us to practice our piety, to prove our faith, either by taking up a cross or taking down an idol or speaking a word of testimony when we are called to account for the faith that is in us (see also I Peter 3). No, the point is why we do what we do... as a performance for others, or as a demonstration to God.

Years ago, my dad served a small Baptist congregation in Milton, TN, a town so small even God may not have known where it was. First Sunday night of every month, those gathered had "business meeting" before singing and preaching began. It was a poor congregation, in a poor part of rural Tennessee, but for about four months running one man would stand up in the service, pull the corner of a $100 bill out of his pocket and declare, "I have $100 here that I will give to the church if another person will match it," and then he would sit down, smugly, because no one had taken up the challenge. He was smug before hand, too, confident in his challenge--he surely knew no one else in the church had a C-note. Dad put up with this about as long as he could. One night, before business meeting, he gathered some of the other men in the hall, all of them as sick of this charade as Dad, and they pooled their resources to collect, barely, $100. That night when the fellow stood up and showed his...uh...corner, Dad said, "Done! Seven of us have come up with money to match yours." The man, of course, immediately backed down, said that the challenge was for one other person to match it and therefore he was rescinding the offer.

The man seemed uninterested in reward other than that of having his poor neighbors know he was a bit richer than they. His pledge of support for the church was bogus, a ploy--not for love of God or his work but for love of self, or so it seemed to the rest of us.

John Baillie says that, sometimes at least, our care of others is a refined form of self-care. Jesus says that our acts of piety, if we are not careful, have little to do with the honor we want to do God and everything to do with the honor we want others to do us. Lent could be one of the times when we do that.

I encourage my people to wear their ashes all day, Ash Wednesday. I encourage them to wear a cross necklace--not jewelry--for the days of Lent. To practice their piety, to prove to themselvse and God they can make testimony in an increasingly pagan culture--but to beware lest they are doing it not in order to be saying something about God but to say something about themselves, or to have others say it for them. Lest, in other words, they too quickly receive their reward.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Monday with Esta

The other day I went to see Esta in the hospital. She told me I could tell you.

She fell last Saturday and broke her hip. She had surgery on Sunday afternoon and as I write this she is scheduled to leave the hospital on tomorrow to begin her rehab. But I wanted to tell you about this visit.

The other times I went, there were family and friends and not much time for conversation (not to mention the sedatives and pain medication). But on Monday, after the nurse who checked her blood pressure left, it was just she and I. The first words out of her mouth when she saw me come through the door were not “Hello, preacher” or “Hi, Tom,” but —and I am not making this up—“You don’t know how much I miss coming to church! I miss it! I miss it so much!” When I took my leave a little while later, she didn’t say “Bye, Tom” or “Thanks for coming,” but “I miss it, oh, I miss it so.”

In between we talked a little about her situation, her fall and surgery. She frowned to tell me that she was in “right much” pain. When the physical therapist interrupted us to tell her he was coming back in a little while to get her up again and make her walk some more, she frowned more deeply still. When he left she laid her head back on the pillow, looked straight at the ceiling and, after a moment, into the past. “I used to teach Sunday School,” she said. “I taught so many lessons.” A wide grin closed her eyes. “It made such a difference in those little ones’ lives,” she smiled.

“And in yours, too,” I replied. She did not look at me but nodded. She said something about Easter Egg hunts and mumbled a word or two about her own Sunday School class. A tear fell from my eye as she said, once more but still smiling, “I miss it so much.”

“I know you do,” I said; “I would too. Church is the only thing I know anything about,” I said truthfully. She looked back at me and nodded. I said, “But what a great thing that you and I have so many good memories of church. Isn’t it wonderful to love and enjoy something so much that it hurts to be away from it?” She nodded again. A few minutes later I got up to leave and she said… well, you know what she said. Nor will I forget it.

My prayer that day and every day since is this: if I outlive my body, when what has held me up has given way and I am prone, I hope I can look up and remember as much as Esta does. I hope that memories of faith, hope and love—memories of Jesus and the church—will bring a smile back to my frowning face, and keep on doing so, till there are frowns and tears and pain no more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Pass the Bamboo

Since last we talked I have turned 51. I mention this fact not to solicit cards or felicitations, but only to share with you a pretty funny line sent me by my friend Mike, a pastor buddy from college and seminary days. A bit of background: Mike fell off the same chronological precipice as I back in September and the other day we were commiserating a bit by email, eventually confessing one to the other—and surprisingly, we each of us acknowledged—how this birthday had hit us a harder lick than last.

We are not vain, for the most part. Not fatalists or despairing. We were just stewing a bit, I guess you’d say, in a watery broth of cyber-melancholy with a pinch of age-related funk.

And yes, I know: birthdays are just dates; years are just numbers; you are only as old as you feel. And no, 51 is not all that old—not old at all they way some people see it. All I can say is that Mike and I were feeling pretty old the day we were talking about it. “I have lost 30 yards off my drive,” Mike lamented but, really, he didn’t have that much to lose (as I reminded him, one good friend to another). “I can’t remember the half of what I read,” I countered, “you know, like I could when we were in seminary.” He replied, “You didn’t read half of what you were supposed to, and still don’t, from the sound of it” (Mike rereads Tolkien every year; also, he is also a stickler about grammar). “It’s these new bifocals,” I protested. “I can’t see.” He wrote back, “I know what you mean.” Both of us have new glasses and are, therefore, blind as bats.

As a matter of course, we compared our various aches and pains, and not all of them orthopedic, either. Some of the pains we spoke of were a little closer to the heart: regrets, missteps, lost opportunities, unraveled friendships—that kind of thing. It was not serious therapy, by any means, or even deep wallowing; more the kind of discussion old friends have now and then when their paths have diverged radically and the years have passed all too quickly.

And then Mike said something to save the day. He recalled how the night before he was in his favorite chair, disheveled, feet up, diet coke in hand, chin on chest and more or less asleep as he “watched the game.” He started snoring, which woke him in time to hear one of his kids crack on the old man’s posture and general appearance. Mike roused up to inform the upstart that he, Mike, had “achieved the status of a head gorilla, which means I get sit around in the shade, eat what I want, develop a paunch, sleep a great deal, and act a little surly from time to time, all without undue guilt.” King Kong, in other words, just more domesticated.

That to say, if age has its ravages it also has its privileges. (Note to Staff-Parish Committee: if ever you get a complaint about me beating my chest and baring my teeth, bellowing and tossing books here and there, you will know what happened.)