Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Feast of St. Ray

I know where I was 19 years ago this afternoon...standing in a cemetery in Nashville, TN, on what may have been the coldest day I ever have had to endure. I was thankful for my robe as I read passages from the Psalms, a snippet of John and said a prayer. Beside me was Bill Malone, a good friend of the deceased, one suit sleeve stuffed into his pocket on account of the drunk driver that hit him as he worked on his stalled car beside the interstate. It is a wonder Bill was not killed.

Of his friend, the one we were helping to bury, Bill said, "I can only say I envy him, that Ray got there first. We have spent so many days, so many hours, so many times talking about heaven, about the great reunion to come, about being free from the pain and heartache, the disappointment and distress, about being at last with Jesus. Go in peace, Ray," Bill said. "I will be there with you before long."

And he was.

Ray, of course, was my father. It was on this day in 1988 that I preached his funeral, presided at his graveside service, endured the bitter cold of the cloudless afternoon and the, if anything, colder reality that Dad was gone and gone, away from me and away from any chance we might have had for some kind of deep reconciliation. Which is not to say we were estranged, not exactly. It was just hard, our relationship. Like dads' and sons' can be.

He was proud of me, I think. He resented me, I know for a fact. He loved me in his own way. He rarely said it in ways I could hear. He was never pleased with me, and never accepted that I was proud of him. He was too ashamed of himself to believe anyone could love him: a wife, children, Jesus. He was a sad, sad man in many many ways: unhappy in marriage, in vocation, in almost any way you could imagine. Emasculated in the flesh, first situationally and then by surgery, he seemed also emasculated in spirit. He excoriated his lack of faith, his lack of happiness, his lack of success. He excoriated others who had some of what he did not. His expression, most times, was one of disgust. That disgust started with himself but it by no means ended there.

Still, he could laugh. Had a great sense of humor--on occasion. He was never violent, never just mean. He just seemed tired all the time. And sick.

Illness became his first best identity.

He died deep in Advent, and I have come to believe that his life was a kind of parable of Advent. He longed for Jesus' appearing, as Paul says it in II Timothy 4, and even if Daddy could not see the ways in which Jesus had come--did not have eyes to recognize how the whole world is aflame with the presence of God--he had faith in the flame to come, the purging, purifying flame which would burn away the bad memories of his life, the dross of his existence, and deliver him into the light of God's eternal life.

His hope was the only warmth we felt that afternoon, I think. At least it was my warmth as the wind whipped my robes around my legs and cut to the deeps of my flesh.

I go to that place now and again, when I am back home. I find his grave by sighting coordinates between the chapel and the statue of Jesus. There he is, beneath the ground beneath my feet, but not there at all. Resting, waiting still. Either for the resurrection of the dead which will complete his journey, or for the deaths of his beloved ones that will complete ours--either way that we might all enjoy together what together we prayed and preached and hoped that cold afternoon all those years ago.

Rest in peace, Ray. Rest in peace, Daddy. I miss you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Omaha and Isaiah

I am spent with grief on account of the shooting last evening in Omaha. I am sure it will find its way into my sermon somehow (the rough draft of which is at Share It, in the Sermon Feedback Cafe). Something like, "they shall not hurt or destroy either on the holy mountain or the Great Plains."

I feel so sorry for the shooter who, as the news reports this morning, spent several months "in the fetal position chewing his fingernails." That, apparently, because of "problems" with his stepmother. Sounds like Walt Disney gone horribly wrong. So he loses his girl and he loses his dead-end job, and that makes him dead-end people he did not even know: so many others now have lost their girls and guys.

"Now I am going to be famous," he says, and when and where and why did it happen than our disaffected came to imagine that this is the way to be famous? Then again, in the ethos of American Idol, perhaps if you can't sing you shoot.

And why was his landlady not alarmed? A sad and bitter child showing off his assault weapon?

I pray for the dead and their families. They were doing their Christmas shopping. Got up yesterday morning and dressed and had lunch and went shopping for their kids, their grandkids, their parents, their spouses. A nice afternoon at the mall, feeling the Christmas spirit. They had no reason, nor did their families, to expect that this Advent would be any different than any other, except for this other advent--this dark coming of this poor, blind soul and his assault rifle.

And so I recall, somewhat eerily, the Gospel text from last week: two were in the boys department, and one was taken; two were trying on shoes and one was taken; but know this, that if any of them had known at what time the boy was coming they would have stayed awake or stayed away and not let the thief into the mall.

Especially so, come quickly, please, Lord Jesus.

Friday, October 26, 2007

“When, If, Then”
II Chronicles 7:12-14; Luke 7:36-50 (21st Sunday after Pentecost; October 21, 2007)


The other day my wife Jo and I were driving across a bridge which spanned an inlet of Lake Wylie, South Carolina. I saw not one but two pontoon boats sitting on mud. Later, crossing the Catawaba, on the so-called riverfront itself, I saw piers whose steps descended to grass, twenty feet or more from what remained of the retreating lake’s near edge.

I have to admit to a certain perverse fascination regarding our present crisis—and most of it centered here in the Bible belt, if you have not noticed—this draught, this rainlessness: it reminds us, if you will forgive the pun, of the essential nature of things.

In the vanity of our imaginations, we are so easily inclined to believe that we are in control, the masters of our own fates and destinies, and even the fates and destinies of others, what with all our knowledge and technology, all our sophistication and smarts. Time and time again, however—and to our protracted horror—we rediscover otherwise. On one side of the globe we are learning that that superior weaponry and even night vision goggles do not an insurrection quell (or as the Bible says in Psalm 33:16

a King is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength;
the war horse is a vain hope for victory
and by its might it cannot save.)

And back home? Should it stop raining long enough, TVA and Duke Energy have to start stopping the reactors. Electricity may get scarce while rolling blackouts and brownouts may be plentiful…while our lives, as we have made them, slowly grind to a halt. If rain does not come soon, we may be left with life as God gave it…but that may not be a bad thing, all in all.


In Bible Study on this last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I began our prayer time by reading II Chronicles 7:13-14. The context for the passage is a dream: God comes to Solomon by night. Solomon has just finished building the Temple, the great place of worship for all of Israel, where sacrifices and prayers will be offered by the people, and Solomon has prayed to God, that God’s “eyes may be opened night and day toward this house…” that God would “hearken to the supplication of (the) people Israel, that when (God hears those prayers, that God would forgive” (I Kings 9:28-30, passim).

God appears to Solomon and answers: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

I read that text, Wednesday night and Thursday. I said to each group, “We seem to be in one of those “when’s” God mentions.” And then I asked each group, “Which of those ifs is the hardest?” Very quickly, very quickly—immediately­­­­ came the reply—“humble ourselves!” Everyone agreed. And why is that so hard? For each of us, for all of us together, to humble ourselves?

Why is it hard even to see that we need to do such a thing? That it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother or my sister but it’s me, O Lord; not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord; not my children or my students but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Why is it so hard to sing that song, to say those words, to pray that prayer…really pray it and say it and believe that it is me, it’s me, it is me, God knows, who needs to humble myself? Why is that so hard?

Well, maybe, because it is so much easier, so much more natural (and fun!) for us to exalt ourselves, to think better of myself and my opinions that I do of other people and their opinions. Whether because of race or education, upbringing or privilege, even tenure—My father used to say, “Tom, when you have been around as long as I have, you will see that I am right”—it is so much easier to assume we are right, whatever our rationale; natural, really, to discount the views or opinions or character of another—because they don’t look like we do, don’t sound like we do, don’t vote like we do, don’t see things and think like we do (John Locke said that all of us are predisposed toward our own opinions). It is so much more fun to imagine that if “they” were more like me, then they would see that I am always right.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), but we readily reject his counsel. Others? Her? HIM?! Better than ME? Then you don’t know him like I do! In the same text Paul also says, “Do all things without murmuring or arguing; do nothing from selfishness or conceit.” Some places I know do nothing without murmuring and arguing, do everything from conceit… another word for conceit being “pride.”


Soon after 9/11 I began to see bumper stickers on cars in Marshville and Monroe, other places too: The Power of Pride, they read. Perhaps you saw them too. I understood, I think, still understand the sentiment—in bad times you rally around the flag, circle the wagons, all that. But I was uncomfortable with the bumper stickers all the same. Why? Because Pride, according to our faith tradition, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; and the power that results from pride is never, according to Holy Scripture, a good thing.

Power is the polar opposite of selflessness and sacrifice, the virtues to which Jesus calls us. And pride is a “source” sin, not just one among the others but the root, the fountainhead of the other six: greed, lust, gluttony, boredom, despair and anger. Let’s think about Anger for a moment.
Not all anger is sinful, God knows. Anger is a good emotion that God has given us, to alert us that something is awful bad wrong. Parents rightly get angry if a child puts themself in harm’s way. Citizens rightly get angry when the well-being of all children becomes a political football and every one, on both sides of the aisle, are trying to score points. It can be good to be angry at injustice, at political gamesmanship—sometimes if we are not angry we are not paying attention.
That said, there is anger which is quite sinful indeed. I will speak for myself: sometimes my hottest, bitterest anger concerns, not the great issues of the day but the little issues of my little days—those real and imagined slights that offend my pride, that insult my position, that question my opinions. My heart can become a blast furnace, one I stoke with coals of resentment and jealousy. I burn hotter and hotter. I pour in tender by the ton: kindling grudges and chips off my shoulder, the sawdust specks from another’s eyes. Hotter and hotter.
The fire is pride. When I cannot forgive: that is pride. When I cannot congratulate or bless or celebrate another and their accomplishments, that is pride. When I have to have my own way: pride. When I want control, need control, will not relinquish control: that is pride. When I see the pride in others before I see it in myself…you know what causes that? You know what opens my eyes to the sin of another and closes them to my own sin: Why, friends, that is pride.
Pride is sinister. It is insidious. It is like a killer weed in every heart’s garden. It is a grace-resistant infection in the bloodstream of the soul. It makes MRSA look like a bad cold. And all of us are infected. All of us are infected. If we think we are not, guess what makes us think that? Pride. When we reject the text or teaching of Scripture because “these days we know better than that…” Know what kind of glasses you are wearing? Prideful ones.
A Pharisee named Simon gave a great dinner party and invited Jesus to come. As was the custom, Simon had the tables arranged near the outer courtyard of his house so that the townsfolk could get near enough to watch the festivities, ooh and ahh at the guests as they ate. There was no People magazine in those days; no paparazzi—this is how common people basked in the glow of celebrity. Jesus came but seems to have taken a place far enough away from the head table that a woman of the street, unwashed, a sinner—a prostitute—was able to get near enough to make a further spectacle of herself. She weeps on his feet, dries them with her hair, anoints them with fine oil, never stops kissing them… And Simon is aghast. When he sees it, what is happening, he does not say anything, but takes a condescending breath and thinks to himself—“If this man were a prophet (and clearly, now, he has his doubts about the reports he has heard), he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him.” Simon’s rationale is clear: if Jesus were righteous, he would not let a sinner so near him; if he lets a sinner near him, he is not righteous.
Simon is righteous, he is clear on that: he is a Pharisee, a good host with good morals and the good sense to be appalled by the way his guest and this woman’s are acting in polite company.
Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you…” And for my money that may be the scariest thing Jesus says to anyone anywhere in Scripture. I have had people say that to me, parents, professors, bishops, spouse: “Tom, I have something to say to you.” That is never a comfortable way to start a conversation because I know I am being called on the carpet.
I wonder if Jesus would say that to me now? Today? To the rest of us? “I have something to say to you…” Forget the woman. Forget the one you so easily criticize and blame. Forget the one who offends you…I have something to say to you.
Turns out Simon was not that great a host after all. He did not give Jesus water to wash his feet. He did not give Jesus oil to anoint his hair. He did not give Jesus a welcoming kiss—all of that was customary and Simon has failed the test. His self-satisfaction, his self-congratulations, his self-righteousness made his offense all the worse.
I sometimes forget why I come here, what I am doing. Sometimes, in the vanity of my imaginations, I imagine that I am your host, or that we are the hosts—arranging things here so that guests can see us, who we are, what we do, so they will be impressed, ooh and ahh. I forget sometimes to ask whether I have welcomed Jesus into our midst, whether I have given him all he is due as he comes to be with us.
If I do not welcome him, do not give him the place of honor and the gifts due my Guest, if I do not invite him to speak before I draw the first self-righteous breath, then perhaps it is because I, too, dare believe I do not need forgiveness and grace he offers, or at least not much of it—after all, I am one of the righteous ones. All of us are. We do not imagine that we need much grace, even though that is what we preach, not like others need it. Because we do not sin like other people; we are not sinners like other people are. We are better than that, smarter, richer, more sophisticated, more polite than that. We look around at the world and then back at ourselves and feel pretty good about thing, and thank God I am not like that person, those people, in that town doing those things.
But the drought is here, is it not? Here, in the Bible belt? Where church, the Great Ship of Zion, can come to look like a pontoon boat in the mud; whose piers do not lead down into the river to pray but end far short of the near edges of God’s healing grace; where our hearts, our classes, our congregations can look something like a dinner party for the Pharisees, little circles of self-congratulation and blame, little fists of pride, and full of murmuring and arguing; where not many of God’s people, starting first with the preachers, humbly regard others as better than themselves… no wonder, really, our predicament.
But we have prayed over this place, much as Solomon did the Temple. We have asked God to watch over us and hear our supplication. And God is merciful. Because we believe God is the same yesterday, today and forever, whose property is always to have pity, who makes it rain on the just and unjust alike, we can trust that God appears to us this day and says once more, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
When…and if…then…
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Publican and the Pharisee

I am reflecting on the notion of "identity" in this text, and the "delicious irony" (Levine) of the trap Jesus sets in the telling.

On the face of it, everyone assumes their proper station and says the right kind of prayer. It is appropriate for the Pharisee to pray as he does--he is, in fact, thankful to have been called to be a Pharisee and his prayer is no different than ours when we say, "There but for the grace of God go I." (Levine)

Likewise, the Publican ought to beat his chest and hide his face and stay away from polite company as he prays his miserable prayer miserably alone.

If the hearers of the parable were surprised that Jesus commended the Publican and his prayer--trapped by grace--we are surprised to find that we are trapped by our legalism when we say something like, "I am glad I am not like that Pharisee." (Levine) In sum, when we identify with the Publican we only prove we are the Pharisee (Schillebeeckx).

Still, this question of identity...it is not just that the Pharisee plays by the rules but that he takes his identity from who he is and what he does. His identity is based in self-affirmation. He has received his reward. The Publican, howver, finds identity in confession and self-contradiction, which Abba Evagrius said was the beginning of salvation.

And still both are in the Temple. Both are in my church! All of us are probably both. I know people in my church who are self-aggrandizers or self-blessers--I am one of them! And truth to tell I am thankful for them (as Levine says, the Pharisee is just the kind of congregant all of us want to have and in multiples--these folk pray and fast and, especially, tithe!). They follow the rules and who wants a bunch of antinomians to shepherd? That said, the Pharisees in the pews and the Pharisees we are are mostly unaware of our sin, and therefore are unaware of our own need for grace. Instead, we take identity from our righteousness, our works, our proper place in the Temple.

I also am and have folk who are so sure of their sin they are unable to see that they too are loved and are welcomed in the Temple...that their prayers are heard and are efficacious.

Last week (see above. though I cannot get the paragraphing to work!) I departed from the lectionary to preach on Luke 7:36-50, how in pride "we," like Simon, are inclinced to see "its" (7:39) instead of seeing "hers/hims/thems" (7:44)--that how we treat "outsiders" is crucial in replicating the hospitality of God. This week I return to the lectionary to preach this text, determined to deal with "insiders," folk who come to Temple with us to pray and whose only hope is in God (Lathrop)--while many of us still put our first best hope in ourselves and regard the others with contempt.

The solas of the historic Reformation speak to what will reform the heart, too, what might reform the shape and tenor of congregational life. Moreover, these images seem to help me see the Bible as a book of salvation by grace and not for me alone (Just as I am, without another plea), but also as a political tool by which God forms and reforms the people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The War and This War

“It is hard to evoke the year 1940 for people who were not alive then,” writes Frederick Buechner, “the great excitement of it, the extraordinary sense of aliveness. It was the war that did it, of course. I doubt if there has ever been a war that seemed so much a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness… For people born since, it must be hard to imagine a time when this country seemed so much on the side of the angels, or a cause so just…with rich and poor alike caught up in a sense of common urpose and destiny…and in a way more alive to the issues of light and darkness than it has been ever since” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 66-75).

This insight may help to explain both the success of Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War—whose rating have topped even commercial programming and especially among veteran demographics—and the way in which, for all its realism and horror, the series feels almost like an epic fairy tale, a “once upon a time” kind of story. It was then, and perhaps for the last time, when all-out war took on the mantle of holiness and purpose (Eisenhower, for instance, prepped D-Day troops for the coming invasion with the language of “crusade;” if the soldiers themselves did not at first believe it, when they liberated the death camps they many of them came to see that what they had done was in fact a kind of redemptive work.)

The massive casualties (even “deaths per square foot of land taken,” as in the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill in Okinawa) tended only to confirmed the war’s stakes. Soon to be imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis, Bohnoeffer in 1937 suggested that when Jesus calls to his disciples, he “bids them come and die.” This particular call to arms could well have seemed a kind of divine summons in the world, this selfless service a kind of sacred vocation, and the inestimable sacrifices of blood a healing flood. At least we can say that the obedience and sacrifice of the soldiers ultimately vanquished the evil of the Axis and redeemed its remaining victims—in short, the world was cleansed of its most obvious evils.

Burns’ film stands in stark contrast to the new movie from director Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. This film is inspired by actual events—which might mean almost anything—but it gradually comes to feel like a documentary. We follow in painful detail the complete unraveling of a long-frayed family, along with the undoing of past certainties and the exposure of a nation whose flag is raised (mistakenly at first but then intentionally) upside down.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a career soldier and former Military Policeman—one who has believed in and lived his life by the rules. The death of his first son in previous combat has wounded but not dissuaded him. In that sense he has fared better by half than his wife Joan, played by Sarandon, who is not only deeply aggrieved but irretrievably cynical. Hank, now retired and driving a gravel truck, still polishes his shoes each night and situates them at the foot of the bed, presses his pants on the bedside to maintain the crease and later, makes his own hotel bed with military corners.

Deerfield receives a call from the base where his younger son, Mike, is stationed after a tour in Iraq. The caller says that Mike is AWOL and has 24 hours to report or be charged. Hank drives to the base-town to find him, and the search becomes a kind of tragic-heroic quest. Neither the military nor the local constabulary demonstrates any real interest in the mystery, whether from actual indifference or, as it turns out, stonewalling.

After the mutilated and burned body of his murdered son Mike is discovered, Hank begins to oversleep. His bed goes unmade. His increasingly silent grief drives him further from his already estranged wife while the gruesome death becomes a metaphor for the ways in which not only his own marriage but even the nation is sundered and seared with anger and sadness. Against Hank’s stern counsel, Joan still insists on seeing what is left of her son’s body. “Is that all?” she whispers through the window (movie viewers are on the body-side of a protective glass and read her lips.) “Is that all that is left of him?” She walks away in silence, Hank’s arm tight around her shoulder. She seems ready to collapse but turns and hugs Hank for a long moment. It is their only intimacy. Soon, he has taken her back to the airport where with a cool kiss to his cheek she departs again. She does not speak, does not look back.

Hank is left to discover the truth, which he does, all the while trying to maintain belief both in his son and the ideals by which he has lived his life. An overworked detective and single mom, Emily Sanders (Theron) becomes an increasingly sympathetic ally against her own employers and, especially, the military base’s commanders. While Mike’s murder is at first blamed on the usual suspects—drugs, ethnic hostility—together Hank and Emily discover that the war itself is the murderer, and not only of Mike and the other soldiers of his unit but of others on the base and their families. This war has destroyed any mythic sense of holy warring (despite whatever “crusade” language might be invoked by the Powers that Be), as surely as it has obliterated the conscience of its participants.

Which is harder for Deerfield to bear? The disintegration of the principles by which he has ordered his days—he had resolutely believed that “we” are the good guys (and his son, too, by experience and implication) and the enemy are bad guys; the world, in sum, was cast not just in absolute terms, if not black and white then in red, white and blue—or his son, as we discover with Hank, gone so horribly wrong?

Early in Mike’s deployment he is so sensitive as to break general orders and even record with his camera phone the death of an Iraqi child who had been playing in the street till Mike runs him over as his convoy races by. He weeps to his dad to “get me out of here.” Soon enough, however, that tender-heartedness is itself dead and in its place has risen a sadism so fierce as to allow him again and again to brutally finger the deep wounds of Iraqi prisoners with the question, “does that hurt?” His protracted cruelty earns Mike the nickname “Doc.”

At one point, a soldier’s anger boils over in invective and curses toward Sanders as she approaches the truth of Mike’s death. The soldier’s commander restrains him, ushers him down a hallway and says, “Walk away. Just walk away.” The truth, however, is that none of them can. “You have no idea what we went through over there…” the soldier says, whether by way of rebuke or apology, and in one way that is true. But soon everyone knows that the chaos has overtaken them all. Evil is no longer shocking; it is merely the font in which they have all been immersed. The horror is banal, boring—and when the truth is finally reported—Mike’s buddies have in fact killed him—it is with a kind of matter-of-factness that is numb and numbing: “We had to hurry because we were hungry,” says the confessing soldier. “Hungry?” asks Sanders. “Starved,” says the soldier. The detective she shuts off her tape recorder. Everything has been said.

So does Hank Deerfield discover that what was once true, if ever, is true no longer. One night he tells the story of David and Goliath to Sanders’ son, tries to school the boy that that there are rules to be honored even in combat. In the case of Israel and the Philistines, one did not shoot with arrows even a giant who had offered challenge with the sword. In the case of the current conflict—as he also had assured the boy’s mother—those who have fought side-by-side against the enemy would never turn on each other. Even this last certainty crumbles around him.

Deerfield takes his place in a kind of cinematic prophetic succession with Russell Crowe’s Maximus (Gladiator) and Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in the Bourne series of films. Especially in the trilogy’s last installment, Bourne—who was labeled a “rogue agent” after he abandoned his original “programming” and mission to “protect American citizens”—reveals that the recruiters and programmers are themselves the rogues and as willing to kill American citizens as anyone else. It is the CIA, and by extension, the entire government that has gone rogue from its identity and best purpose. Bourne, alone but for one late convert (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen) is left to bring down the corrupt leaders of the agency and does so.

Likewise, Maximus—victimized into the gladiatorial games by the cruel machinations of the insane and patricidal Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) proclaims as he enters to Coliseum, “Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome and this is not it, this is not it.” The sad benediction might well have come, with variation, from Hank Deerfield.

Early in the movie, Deerfield stops his truck in front of the local elementary school and berates a Latino janitor for inadvertently running the flag upside down up the pole. “That is an international distress call,” he barks. He explains that flying the flag in that way means that the nation is in terrible trouble, under attack and with no ability to defend itself. It is a plea for intervention, “please come help us,” because we cannot help ourselves. He rights the flag with snap and pride.

Later, he curses a Latino member of his son’s squad, sure as he is that the man is a drug dealer and responsible for his son’s murder. Deerfield has already beaten the man as he was being arrested. When the truth is at last revealed—the man had nothing to do with the murder—Deerfield invites the badly bruised soldier to share with him a drink. They sit together, share a small bottle of whiskey and, almost Eucharistically, there comes truth-telling and reconciliation. A bit of it anyway.

And the end of the movie Deerfield returns to the flagpole. He takes a faded and torn American flag—one that has done “hard duty,” Deerfield tells the same janitor, and a gift from Mike to his Dad, shipped home “with love” just hours before the murder—and while the janitor looks on raises the colors, again upside down and this time on purpose. “You leave it just like that,” Hank says.

And so the movie ends with a kind of prayer, duct-taped in place till an answer should come. This flagpole, it seems, is where Americans will increasingly meet, this prayer the one they increasingly will pray: please help us, for we can no longer help ourselves.

Burn’s film, The War, is dedicated to “all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.” Whether or not WWII finally rises to the level of a just war is a debate for theologians and ethicists; still almost all would agree that it was in fact “necessary.” The final episode’s tour through the death camps, just one cursory glance at bodies stacked like wood, one look into the startled eyes of survivors, are confirmation enough of that penultimate benediction.

It would help many of us, I think, to be certain that the planners of the present conflict at least aimed toward such liberation and redemption—I recall that no less that Elie Wiesel supported the “preemption” on this basis alone: that Saddam was a murderer of his own people. As time goes by, however, if we are less and less certain of our first best motives, we are increasingly convinced that it is our own nation now in the darkness, upside down, in need of liberation and deliverance from an unraveling self-image and a war that seems neither just, nor necessary…nor in the least wise energizing.

The Pharisee and the Publican

I am working on this text this week, Luke 18:9-14, familiar as it is. I would alert you who are doing the same not to miss Amy Jill-Levine's wonderful treatment of the pericope in her book, The Misunderstood Jew (Harper, 2006; page 40-41).

One thought that strikes me this week is that the players are both in the Temple. This may seen a small point, but as often as I have preached and taught this text I have never considered that part of it. It is not just that the Pope and a pimp went to St. Peter's to pray (Crossan), but that God does not admit one and not the other, but both--much to the Pharisee/Pope/Tom's chagrin. In sum, if the lavish hospitality of God to "outsiders" can wrankle at times we still expect that. What we can't abide is the hospitality to others within the church. Which is to say that often we are unable to be the least bit hospitable to insiders--whatever their real or imagined offense (Remember Garrison Keillor's line to the effect that "we have not spoken to the Bunsens in twenty years, I have no idea why").

Could the Pharisee's prayer even be a bit of a dig at God? I am so righteous as to make distinctions were you (God) do not? If so, his attitude is in keeping with Jonah, at least, who surely wants to make distinction regarding Ninevah where God does not and does what he can to subvert the gracious intent of God. The analogy breaks down in that Ninevites were certainly outsiders, but the desire to make distinction where God does not is still apt.
I am struggling with this business of how we in the church (and I am thinking here of my congregation but it could be extrapolated further) sometimes are prone to regard each other with more contempt than we regard those who are not in the Temple at all. If that makes any kind of sense.

It is still early.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Family and Vocation

I am struck in the Jeremiah text for Proper 23 that the "practices" Jeremiah announces as God's word for the reframing of the Exile experience are what might be considered traditional (in the sense of historic) family values: building houses, planting gardens, wedding spouses, having children, celebrating the generations, praying for the city in which one resides. The depression and anger attending deportation might cause the exiles to react differently--might prompt the atomizing of life and culture. But if the bad news is that Exile has separated the remaining Jerusalemites from their foundations, it has not cut them off from their essential roots of being a holy people, multiplying and fruitful, recipients of blessing in the hope of once again being the channels of blessing.

This word is vital to me right now in my place of service. Many of our new believers (though some of them are "believers again") are struggling with the energy church requires, the (oft-times self-imposed) challenges of small group meetings, work areas, services, etc. They want to be a part of it all, but it is dividing husbands and wives, parents and children, if only in terms of time and place (though the stress seems to go deeper among some). This text reminds me that "family" can be an essentially spiritual reality, the locus of spiritual development and transformation. As Luther said, famously, the family is but the smallest of congregations.

Many preachers, while eager to preach on the corporate nature and communal dimensions of the gospel, can for various reasons overlook the family as one aspect of those realities. Perhaps Jesus' own ambivalence toward his mother and siblings is the theological excuse for our inattention. Or perhaps the recent political manipulations of "traditional family values" has been (rightly) pegged as a form of judgemental nostalgia and summarily dismissed as one of the apt candidates of the gospel's formational and political ambitions.

But Jeremiah seems to say that the family is a place where God will work to maintain the identity and survival of the elect in the midst of a pagan culture. Indeed, this is where God has put them--another reframing of the Exile, not as godforsakenness but, emergently, as the place where God and God's people may enjoy new intimacy and the reforming of covenant.

And so the historic tasks of families become themselves spiritual practices; this word of the Lord becomes a summons, answering in obedience a spiritual vocation as sacred as any other.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the sad truth

I have heard this week that my book, Praying for Dear Life, is a worst-seller, meaning that it is not selling at all. NavPress has a policy that if anyone buys one of their books and does not like it, they can fill-out and return a coupon in the back for a full refund. Keep the book itself but get back their money. Apparently, 437 coupons were returned last quarter and it is "not likely, unless something dramatic happens with this book," that I will ever receive a bit of royalty beyond my advance.

I guess I am not surprised. Heartbroken, but not surprised. The book is a real hybrid--a "sepia toned memoir," according to the publisher's own marketing materials, but dressed in bluebird colors. PDL is a book on the hours of prayer published by a very conservative evangelical house. I am certain the sales people did not know how to pitch it. In addition, there was a major shuffle in marketing and other turnover in the house. The book is, admittedly, too sacramental for evangelicals (not a "how to" that would lead one to sleep outside in bad pajamas and jump on a bed as if it were a trampoline--that is a description of the cover), and at the same time too evangelical in both appearance/publisher for the mainline. The book fits nowhere.

I had good endorsements--from Buechner, Lauren Winner, Tom Long. But NavPress, when they finally did run an ad for it in Christian Century, did not include the blurbs and so no one took much notice. I have had a couple of nice emails from people who have read it. A few friends have commented that it was meaningful for them. I got a five star review on Amazon from one reader and a reviewer calledit "one of the four or five best books...of the last four or five years" on Goodpreacher.com. Perhaps if I can get an invitation or two to speak here or there things will pick up--maybe something dramatic will happen. I have a new book coming out in a couple of months, more traditional but not nearly so heart-felt. Maybe if it gets noticed a little it will throw a little light on the first one.

It is hard, though--putting yourself so out there in a way and to be so thoroughly ignored. "Love me, please"--that is what every memoirist is asking: know me and love me. Alas. My good friend and editor, Liz, says that I need to take comfort from the fact that it is a good book and that some have been blessed by it--that most books do not, in fact, sell very well. I guess.

With my self-esteem shattered the other night, my amazing son said, "How are you doing, Dad?" Okay, I told him. I am doing okay. He said, "It's all right if you aren't." I started crying, lamenting that it feels, feels, as if I am one of those guys who can work and work, try and try, and never catch much of a break. He says, "Yeah, but lots of folks can't even say they have had a book published, much less four." I do remember, God knows, the ache of wanting to publish a real book, the joy of seeing it happen...but as Stephen Donaldson says, the only way to hurt someone who has lost everything is to give a part of it back to him, broken. I have part of what I had thought I'd lost, but it is broken somehow.

Few care. But a few do. No one is buying the book, many are returning the ones they have bought, but some have been blessed. A few sentences of the first chapter formed the conclusion to a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day sermon by an Episcopalian priest in Washington, DC. That is huge, at least to me. To be mentioned in the same context as Preacher King is an incredible notion unto itself. The priest, a black woman, said mine was her "new favorite book."

Pieces. Pieces of satisfaction. Bits of significance. I will have to content myself with that. And wait patiently for the purposes of God to enfold.

I said long ago that if this book were to be published, God would have to help make that happen. The confluences of absurdity above seem to have God's fingerprints all over it. I also said that if the book were ever to have an audience, God would have to do something about that too. The harried and confused sales people at NavPress might ask the same. Will I write more? Publish more? I would like to think so, that, as Frederick Buechner has pronounced on my upcoming work, I "know how to read and know how to write," but I will have to wait. Just wait to see if God has further work for me to do, given that I obviously don't know how to sell.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bobbing the Waves Alone

I have been to Charlotte this morning, to the hospital to see a member of my church who is having surgery. I told her a few stories about John Wesley, of his frustrated love affairs and his encounter with the Moravians. She and her husband, himself a former Moravian but both of them Methodists for twenty years or more, had never heard of such and thought them really funny. I hope it relieved the stress a bit.

Who will tell me stories on Friday? Anyone?

The other night Jo and I went to a 50th anniversary party for a new couple in our church. Their kids had put together a video...the story of their lives in pictures. I made the observation the next morning in my sermon that the Bible affords us the picture of our lives, in stories. The stories are the fascia, the connective tissue, that hold us together and give our bodies cohesion. If we lose our stories, we cease to be the body...

I wept at the beach last week, looking at all the young families--moms and dads with their
kids--praying for them, remembering when my little ones were little. I cried in the ocean, too, knowing I would never bob a wave with Bethany again, or not likely, or maybe I will but who knows? Jacob came into the water with me once, and Jo did the last time I went out on Friday. I told her I wished she would. She does not like the water in her face and so she has always been very resistant. To her credit she stayed with me about 15 minutes. Mostly I was out there by myself. Bethany would have gone with me, I think, but she was not able to come down at all.

I am sure I spend way too much time pondering what I have lost or never had, what I do not expect to experience again if I ever did. When I look at our bulldog Chester, or rub his ears, I fear almost above all other things the prospect of his death. It will come. How will we cope? We will, but he has been the primary glue in our family for a long time. Sad, but in many ways true.

I have surgery again this week...my seventh on my poor knee. A revision of my replacement done last June. They will go in a third time through the largest of my scars...and isn't that an image? The doctor keeps opening the old wound in hopes of fixing my joint. "The tissue has failed," he said. "It's a real mess in there." The fascia is torn, my knee cannot work as a knee because the tissue has failed. Knees, joints, bodies, Body...

This surgery, as my last, has put me deeply in touch with my mortality. I am doing everything this week as a kind of "if I never can do it again..." Silly, probably, but I dread Friday with a perfect dread.

Anyway, as I was weeping at the beach I prayed, thankful for the time now past, sad that it is past--that my time too is shorter than yesterday. I do not begrudge anyone their youth or the time they spend with their beloved children; that time goes away so quickly and does not return. Indeed, it does not. But, as Luna Lovegood (in the movie version of Order of the Phoenix) says her mother said, "The things we lose have a way of coming back to us, just not in the ways we might expect." I hope that, would like to think that, about a lot of things.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Via Negativa (Father's Day, 2007)

Luke 7:36-50, C; June 17, 2007


My word processor has a nifty little capability—I am sure yours does, too: the “find and replace” function. I use that particular tool when, for instance, I am preparing to perform a wedding, as I am now. I did a wedding in Florida three weeks ago; I have another coming up in two weeks more; and so the other day I opened the “wedding” file on my computer and typed in the command—find “Michelle” and replace with “Jaime;” find “Lucas” and replace with “Clifton.” I am so thankful. I remember when every single word had to be retyped every single time. The “find and replace” function saves both time and aggravation.

I thought about doing that kind of thing for this morning, a little “find and replace” with my sermon from Mother’s Day. You may remember it, how I mentioned that for some mothers and their children Mother’s Day is a great day, a day to celebrate all that is good about family life, while for others—those for whom their family’s life was and is no Hallmark card—it can be a very hard day indeed. Kind of like today, and not just across the street. So why not just open that sermon file, type in the command: find “mother” and replace with “father,” and preach the same sermon over again? A very nice day for some, and very difficult for others…

Except today is even more difficult, I suspect, than Mother’s Day—for all of us, here in church—if only because “Father” is one of the ways we refer to God and “father” is not always a positive image, sad to say. “A father’s love” is one of the many ways we try to describe God’s care for us and that comparison, too, can be disturbing.

“If God is like my father then I want no part of him…” I have heard that so many more times than once. And should the father be a preacher, then even more’s the pity. But preacher’s kids or not there are many wounded children out there, and maybe many wounded children in here—of all ages—who cannot disengage those realities from one another, God and father. And so, for worse or for better or for worse the images get all tangled up. God, father. Father, God.

And for some of us, surely, God as Father proves a comforting image. But for some, if they can hold at all to the idea of God as Father, it has to be via negativa, which is to say by way of negation and contrast, with a profound hope that God as God is, that God’s care as God cares, will prove to be other and different than their fathers as their fathers were or are.


I have been thinking this week about when I was a new father, of one moment in particular and soon after Bethany had first come to us. This was long ago, now, though fresh in my memory, in the days when car seats were newly mandatory (and rightly), but before what we might call “car seat awareness” was very high—by which I mean before parents realized that car seats had to face backward in order to be properly secured, and before car seat manufacturers knew that all exposed car seat surfaces needed to be plastic or, better, covered with fabric.

Anyway, Jo and I were loading-up to take Bethany for her two-week check-up—two weeks she had been on our watch. I brought her carefully down the back stairs of the house where we were living, put her gently into her car seat…and saw her tiny face contort immediately with a silent scream. She was in instant agony. I immediately grabbed her up to my heart, cradled her, and only then could see that the car seat’s metal buckle, exposed through the front windshield to a July sun, had burned her newborn leg, had in fact blistered her leg in three places.

I cannot tell you everything I felt in that instant—what I still feel when I think of it: horror, panic, guilt. Nausea. I was an unfit father, I knew, incapable of protecting this small life entrusted to me by God and instead horribly able to harm her in a host of ways. It was an accident, of course, but I appreciated both immediately and upon reflection the terrible power a father possesses to wound a child, to leave lasting marks not only on legs but also on hearts, on minds and lives, on spirits.

Bethany is scarred there, still, on her leg. Sadly, the scar has gotten larger with time; gladly it has faded, too, through the years. It is not so very noticeable to anyone else, perhaps, except me. But I can see it—with my eyes and my memory. How many other scars I have left on my left on my little girl, the rest of them invisible, I fear to consider.

I have blessed her, too, of course—yes, I know that—and Jacob, my son, as well. Surely. But just to finish that part of the story, I have to tell you that on the third Sunday of the following June, when Bethany’s not-quite year-old hand had scrawled an unintelligible crayon signature on the inside of a card that read something like, “To the greatest dad ever,” I knew better. Still know better than that—have known, painfully, since that July afternoon long ago, how impotent I am to protect them, my children, how powerful I am to harm them, and sometimes with just a word—words are the cruelest, both the sharpest and the dullest of every parent’s weapons.

A parent’s words can carve a child into pieces, can warp a child with pride or prejudice. A parent can skew a child’s way of looking at themselves or the world, can color the way they look at or relate to others. Garrison Keillor writes of a Lake Woebegone boy who grew up hating the Bunsens, a family in his parents’ church, only the boy never knew why, exactly: it was just how his parents felt, a part of the air his family breathed, and he was expected to follow suit.
How many children have been misshapen by their father’s stuff? How many have been kept perpetually miserable and small by their parents self-serving expectations? How many children have been dwarfed in their development by their parents’ demanding of them something other than what God may intend? That, when the goal of parenting, of faithful parenting at least, is to bless and release and grow our children beyond us.


My friend John Simmons says that he thinks the best definition of faithful parenthood is this: “faithful parents work to release the gifts of their children, whatever the gifts God has given them; and faithful parents allow their children to exceed them—allow their children to exceed them—in whatever areas God and the child may choose.”

Faithful parents learn to see their children, I guess you could say—to see their children the same way Jesus asked the Pharisee to see the woman who was washing Jesus’ feet in our lesson for the morning. Jesus did not want Simon to see the woman just objectively: a thing, a woman of the city, a sinner; but as a real, live person: a loving child of God made in God’s loving image, no matter how much that image was marred or smeared, misused or corrupted; one for whom God desired the fullness of life, the best expression of all the good gifts God had given her; one to whom God had given gifts for that very person; one in whom was God’s very breath, God’s very life and spirit, and from her first breath one blessed with a sense, an hint, an echo of God’s purposes for her.

Is that what Jesus wanted Simon to see? Something like that?

What does God want you to see? Fathers? Mothers? Which is to say, Parents, how does God want you to see your child? Not just as yours, I think, but as God’s…that at least. One who is made in God’s image and graced with God’s gifts and, with your help, sensing God’s call.

Faithful parents (and grandparents, too) will work to see their children as God has made them and gifted them, will work to release their children’s unique gifts, will work to help their children realize God’s dream for them, will work to let their children exceed them and their own expectations.

That is hard work, God knows, putting them on the bike and holding on only till they find their own balance and then letting go, letting them ride—into joy and danger. It is hard work, to be sure, harder to let go than hold on, but if we are to be faithful parents, we have to keep trying, to do just that. Put them on the bike, hold on for a while, then let go. Let go and trust. Let God and let God. Let go and, of course, pray.


All across America today preachers are preaching sermons on Christian Fatherhood, something like that, and maybe with titles like: The Bible’s Guide to Being a Good Father. I have to say that strikes me as a bit ironic, because there just aren’t that many good fathers in the bible. I have a list, but you can check it out for yourself.

Ironic, too, when Jesus—who loved children, of course—said in Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Those are not our traditional family values, I guess. And surely some parents hate their kids, and some kids hate their parents, but not because they are disciples of Jesus.

Another place Jesus says, “Call no man ‘father,’ for you have one Father and that is God.” And still we do—we call some men father, daddy, dad. Our Father—that is God. Your father, my father…we have someone in mind today, so how shall we proceed?

All I can say is that on a day when my children intend, don’t I know, to celebrate me—to give me cards and gifts—I know full well that what I need most from them is their compassion. Their mercy. For them to see me as I am and am trying to be: to find in my file the word “hero” or even “monster,” and replace it with “human,” to find “”best ever” and replace it with “good enough,” adequate, faithful.

I recall a line from Shakespeare, King Lear, scene V, act III. The insane king and his beloved daughter Cordelia are in a British prison. He speaks to her of the future, his hope for their life together wherever it might be lived out, even in prison—he says to her, “we two alone will sing like birds in the cage…” that even incarceration is joyful if they can share it, but of a sudden his tortured mind recalls his guilt, his many kingly offences and not least to her, and he confesses: “when thou dost ask of me blessing, I will kneel and ask of the forgiveness…”

“When thou dost ask of me blessing…”which I guess is what this day is, really, every father’s child asking for their old man’s love and blessing, saying what ought to be true of us but also seeing us for who we are…

“I will kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness…”and that is what this day should be, every child’s father kneeling and asking forgiveness, repenting of what we have done and haven’t, pledging with God’s help to do better: “Next year, with God’s help, the cards will be truer than they are today,” as we dads and granddads and great granddads… kneeling to ask our kids forgiveness, to ask God for God’s help.

Isn’t that what today should be about?

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Day at the Chur-- uh, Zoo

A little background: the day before Mother’s Day about thirty-five of us got up and got going and a couple of hours later arrived at the Riverbank Zoo in Columbia. The parking lot was already filling-up as we pulled-in and by the time we reassembled and headed for the ticket window there were, oh, I don’t know, a million people there. Maybe not quite that many, but there were lots of people, I mean to tell you, and lots of different kinds of people. There were little nuclear families of every shape and color and tonnage, teachers with their classes all in white tee shirts and hoping for some extra credit, now that the school year is winding down. There were singletons and couples and leather-clad bikers not a few. Some were dressed more for the beach than the zoo and others looked like they were on their way to a sit-down dinner. Some of whom we saw should have been in cages while some of the animals—and especially the sea lions and the elephants—looked kind and hospitable enough to join us for lunch. The gorillas were unimpressed. The snakes barely moved, and I never did see the lions and tigers, but the bears—oh, my! I never knew Grizzly Bears were both so skinny and had such long legs.

If we started our journey sleepy—at least that is how I saw it through my own puffy eyes—we were pretty excited when we first got there. But somewhere just before lunch the air began to go out of the balloon. “When do we get there?” turned into “When can we leave?” Hypnotically, the sleep we abandoned a few hours before so as to get on the road began calling to us again. As birds both exotic and common chirped and cawed and filled the air with song, some of our number seriously considered taking a nap right there under a shade tree. We kept moving, though, most of us, until we came to the aquarium.

I came alive standing before the various tanks of water: fresh, salt water, brackish. There was such incredible variety before me—and what the zoo boasts is a mere fraction of all there is. There were fish flat as cardboard and others fat as a tire. Some of them you could color with Crayola’s basic box but a few would require a much and subtler larger palette. There were beautiful ones and ugly ones, dangerous ones and docile ones, a couple as long and thin as a rope and one with a mouth the size of Ohio. There were piranhas and lion fish, eels and sea horses, catfish and sharks. I was transfixed, wowed, looked over to find another in our group with which to share the moment, only to see a little girl (not one of ours) leaning against the wall yawning, completely bored. So much wonder all around her and she was shaking her head as if to say, Let’s get out of here!

Now, she may have liked the birds or quadrupeds better. Or maybe it is a tendency we all of us share, to disregard the beauty and variety of creation, the wonder and texture of God’s world and will, in favor of our own tiredness or distraction or agenda. And many there are, too, who see the Bible in gray or monotonous tones, never imagining the wildness and weirdness and variety that is God’s Word and gift to us.

In our church we too boast such variety! Let us never yawn at it. We are witnesses to the energy and scope of God’s will for the world. So let us keep our eyes open. We are given the opportunity to examine and study the Word of God. Let us not hasten past it for other reasons to other things, but rejoice share this moment together. Let us rejoice together.

Midrash for Mother's Day


Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the next to last Sunday of the Easter season, the Great Fifty Days. Thursday upcoming is Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, when we remember how Christ, after “showing himself alive to his disciples by many proofs,” led them out to the Mount of Olives and, after giving them some last instructions, “was taken up into heaven.” You remember. His disciples stood there, looking up, till an angel fussed at them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go…”

Since most Christians do not, won’t come back to church on Thursday to read those Ascension scriptures and mark that Ascension day, some preachers, today, will preach those texts, will acknowledge that Christ is indeed exalted, ascended, at the right hand of the Father in heaven, but they will also perhaps bark at their people the way the angels barked: we cannot long stand looking up into heaven; we must look down and around us, see here on earth the work we have to do, the gospel we have to preach, the disciples we have to make till Jesus comes again, however it is and whenever it is that he does come back.


Today is also Mother’s Day—as it is the second Sunday in May every year.

A daughter of Methodism, Anna Jarvis, started this tradition in 1907 at the small Methodist Episcopal Church she attended in Grafton, WV. She wanted to memorialize her mother, who had died two years before on May 9, 1905—May 9 being the Tuesday after the second Sunday in May that year.

Already there was a tradition in England called Mothering Sunday, celebrated in the middle of Lent—when churches called to all children to come home during that season and honor their mothers.

And in 1872, soon after the Civil War, a Boston woman named Julia Ward Howe began the Mothers’ Day for Peace, a national day of prayer if you will, when mothers were summoned to pray, for the sake of their sons, especially, for peace at home and abroad.

But what Anna Jarvis did was different, and by 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church itself had officially adopted the day as a tribute to all mothers. Leaders of the church began to call for a national observance, and President Woodrow Wilson answered their call by proclaiming May 9, 1914—the ninth anniversary of the elder Ms. Jarvis’ death—as the first nationally recognized Mother’s Day.

And so, today, all over the nation, as has been the case for not quite a hundred years now, sons and daughters, grandchildren and others, will take time to look down—away from the scoreboards or TV screens—to look back or look around, to acknowledge, to remember or see, to pay compliment or tribute to the women who gave us birth, who also gave of themselves, many of them, selflessly and lovingly.

“Every good and perfect gift comes from God,” the brother of our Lord writes, and if for many mothers a child is the surest proof of that scripture, for some children it is the other way round: their mothers who are the proof. “God could not be everywhere so he gave us mothers”—Jo cross-stitched that for her own saintly and sainted mother years ago, and for some children, indeed, the love of a mother is the surest sign, the abiding presence, the almost incarnated reality of God’s love.

When these blessed mothers’ blessed children read the famous text in I Corinthians 13—“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not jealous or self-absorbed or abusive. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice when things go wrong—if only to say I told you so—but rejoices always in the good things, the truth”; when they read, “Loves bears every burden and never piles on another ounce. Love believes, even when all the evidence seems stacked the other way. Loves hopes. Loves endures. Love never ends—does not, even when by any other standard but God’s it might should”—they read those verses and remember, they hear those texts and they see the face of their own mother.

And so today, here, there are some of us who are so thankful, so appreciative and happy to be able to do a little something for their mothers by way of small tokens—cards, flowers, candy, dinner. At our house tonight (don’t tell Jo I told you!) we are going to cook out and play cards. It was the kids’ idea, and it may not sound like much to you, but ask Jo. She will tell you. That is her favorite thing for us to do—all of us there in the family circle, face to face, smiling and laughing and each one doing their best to beat the living tar out of the others.

For some children, today is the best day of all, truly celebrating the women who gave us life.


It is not so for everyone, however. For some, in fact, today is the worst—maybe because they lost their own mother too early. Maybe because they have no children of their own to celebrate them, to buy them dinner or send a card or candy.

Or maybe because their experience of their own mother is so radically different from the ones I have described. Perhaps because their mother one way or the other was like the ones we mentioned in our prayers: unable to be a source of strength to their children or anyone else much either; unresponsive to their children’s needs, which made the children all the more afraid to ask; not sustaining their families in any way. They were nothing at all like the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31. Their love, if you could even call it that, was not patient or kind; they were selfish and abusive; they believed in nothing and in their children least of all. They hoped less than they believed. Their devotion ended almost before it started. They may have been mothers, but only biologically.

Every Mother’s Day I think of the young woman who came to my office, long ago now, to tell me that she dreaded this day most of all days, because for her it was all of it a lie: an empty ritual: sending a card (“To the best Mom in all the world!”) buying flowers, bluffing her way through conversation about the good old days when there was nothing good about those days, or about any of the days since. “There are no cards at the Hallmark store,” she said, “that say what I really want to say, something like, ‘Thanks for the emotional baggage to carry the rest of my life, the great weight of guilt and the feeling I could never quite measure up to what you expected of me, for never knowing, really, what you expected of me. For making me feel like I was the cause of all your problems and grief…’”

“Know where I can find a card like that?” she asked rather sarcastically.

I shook my head.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” She asked. “Besides therapy?”

“Why don’t you start your own company,” I said, “making cards that say what you think they really ought to say. But get a lawyer,” I said. “Print a disclaimer on each one. Tell people to buy them and sign them but for the love of God don’t send them.”

When the laughter died she said, “No, really. What am I supposed to do?”

“Keep at your therapy,” I said. And then I said this: “For the love of God, keep saying what ought to be true. Keep thinking of love in the ways it ought to be given and received. Keep giving it that way, if you can, even if you have not received it that way, if you can.

“Make love your aim,” I said. “Make love your aim.”


When we read I Corinthians 13, we often stop right there at the end of the chapter: “Now faith, hope, love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.” How well we know those verses. The verse we do not know so well is the next verse, the first verse of I Corinthians 14, where Paul says to all of us just what I said to that young woman in my office, quoting him—it was not original with me—“Make love your aim.”

One of the things I love most about the Bible is how realistic and true to life it is. It is not overly sentimental; it is not hard-hearted, either. When Paul says, “Make love your aim,” I think he is acknowledging that we any of us do not always, some of us do not often experience love—maybe do not often either give or receive love—in all those wonderful ways he has just described. We are not always patient and kind. We do sometimes, and some of us all the time, insist on our own way. We are sometimes very jealous and very selfish. We put up with very little and give up far too easily.

Love as we experience it is rarely how Paul described it. Love as we receive it, as we give it likewise. That is the truth beyond a Hallmark card’s ability to tell it.

And so what do we do with that? Throw up our hands, shut down our hearts, close ourselves off from one another? Repeat the cycle?

Or do we keep aiming? Keep trying? Keep at it?


Today is Mother’s Day, when we look around us and see…many things. And for those of us who rejoice this day, give thanks this day, who think this is the best day of the year: make your mother’s love your aim. Look down, look around, see the work that needs doing, the people that need loving. Remember and acknowledge the way your mother loved you and take aim to be like her: patient, kind, selfless, trusting. Do the same work for others you have seen her do for you. Give love the way you have received it. Make her love your aim.
But for those of you for whom this day is hard, I remind you again of the Ascension, and in spite of the angel’s advice I encourage you to look up: to remember that what Paul describes in I Corinthians, really, is the love of God. Make his love your aim.

Remember, acknowledge the way God has loved you—how patiently, how kindly, how gently. Remember the way Jesus has given himself to you—how selflessly, not insisting on his own way even at the end—pouring himself out in forgiveness and love. Remember how the Spirit has stayed with you every day of your life.

Remember how God’s love for you has never ended and never will—God has never stopped loving you even when, really, he had every right to. If you look around you today or any day and see…well, nothing of the kind of love Paul is describing, keep looking up, to the One who loves as love ought to be and whose Spirit will help you to make love your aim, to love, really love, even those who for whatever reason cannot love you the same.
Make God’s love your aim. Patient. Kind. Selfless. Forgiving. This day and every day.

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Mr. Lovett died last week.

That is sad enough. Sadder is that I did not hear about it till this afternoon.

It was time. He was 87. He had Parkinson's. His brain was calcifying and his memory was all but gone, along with most of his other means of engaging the world. His death is a mercy. He had been so alive, so vibrant, so much a child of God and utterly without guile. A friend once said of him--and he meant it as an insult, I think, but I took it as blessing and benediction--"He is like a little boy with a checkbook." Yes, in many ways. He had plenty of money. He was preternaturally inclined to share. And he did. With many.

I dedicated Praying for Dear Life to him. He showed me incredible kindness and an almost unspeakable support when he had reason to do neither. He paid for my therapy when I nearly lost my mind. He loved me in spite of myself. I owe him a debt I can never repay.

I was going to say all that at his funeral. He told me many times he wanted me to do the funeral, or part of it anyway. Alas. His dear wife forgot to call me or write. I only heard a week after the fact. He had it all written down, she said when at last I got her email. I had seen a copy of his funeral plans and my name was on them--at least last time I saw them. Just as well.

He always wanted me to call him Bill, or even, he said, Daddy Bill. He was in fact the same age as my dad. But I could not bring myself to call him either thing. The latter because it seemed too close in a way and the former because it also seemed too close, too familiar, if in another way. So I always called him Mr. Lovett.

Always will, and with almost hushed humility and gratitude. And great love.

Mr. Lovett.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Silent as the Grave

A couple of nights before my father died I was sitting with him in his hospital room. I had trimmed his beard and hair—I had never done either before, but we both knew that soon he would need to look his best. There was nothing more, therapeutically, to be done for him. The cancer had done its grim work. A cold compress on his forehead was the last palliative offered him against the fever. He felt awful. His eyes were closed. He was very still.

The Browns and the Dolphins were playing a Monday Night game but neither of us were watching. Still, football had been the most of what Dad and I had in common so I tried to strike up a bit of conversation about the game, tried to hold onto him and us for as long as I could. Dad never opened his eyes, just raised his hand slightly and said, “Shhh. Let’s don’t talk.” Except for “I love you” next morning as I took my leave, never to see him alive again, those were the last words he ever said to me.

I am not sure why I am telling you this story. There are other things I might say. It is just that for one reason or the other my thoughts have been with Dad the last couple of days. And it is Holy Week, too, when the message—the reality and memory and expectation—of death is almost palpable. Death is coming. For all of us it is just a matter of time. That is our lot, the human predicament.

But there is promise, too, of course. We believe in the resurrection of the body: Jesus,’ our loved ones,’ and our own. But those promises are so tangled up with the predicament that sometimes, like now, it is hard to know where to start or how to talk about it. Maybe that is not so unusual.

As I read the narratives again and again of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, I notice how much silence there is. Everything seems muffled and muted. If at Jesus’ birth there were choirs of angels and royal visitors and even the wailing of infants, as he dies the mob falls silent and so do his disciples. Saturday is quiet as the grave. Even Sunday morning there are less words than gasps, at least at first—as if no words are sufficient, right, appropriate, equal to the miracle.

There will come words, of course, joyful and celebrative testimony and proclamation, words of praise and thanksgiving, wonder and amazement. But even days later, on that morning when the disciples found Jesus on the beach making them breakfast on a charcoal fire there was…silence (John 21).

Perhaps when we are faced with the truest and deepest mysteries silence is the most authentic response. When our eyes come to focus on either the tragedy of suffering and sickness, brutality or death, or when they see the hope which answers all that, the light that shines in darkness, our tongues rightly go still as voices choke on swallowed words.

“Shhh. Let’s don’t talk.” Let’s just be here, together, in life for as long as we can, in death whenever it comes, in resurrection. Let’s look. Let’s listen. But, “Shhh.” Maybe Dad was teaching me something very important that night, one last lesson, a lesson I have as yet to learn.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Me, Food and Lent

I always fast during Lent. We have to do it for the doctors now and then, so why not for the Great Physician? I have to admit that it rankles a bit, however, that to the extent we most of us know about fasting at all, what it is--giving up food for a specified period of time in view of a "test" of some sort--we know it for medical and not spiritual reasons. Be that as it may, I fast during these forty days of preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

The fast itself varies—sometimes I give up a specific food or beverage, sometimes a specific meal or two. And maybe it is not good for me--my mother thinks as much, fussed at me only last week about it. She may be right. I remember that Martin Luther had perennial digestive difficulties because he fasted so rigorously and so often.

My fasts are in no wise comparable, but still it begs the question. Why? Year by year, I set myself the task, but to what end? Not to lose weight, though I do like being able to button my pants without holding my breath. Not so Jesus will love me more. Jesus already does that and there is no righteousness in "works." So why?

I think because I realized, some years ago, how much I think about food, how much time and energy I give to eating. "Man does not live by bread alone," Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy, but you could not prove it by me. Not the Hours but mealtimes order and shape my life, give my days shape and definition—even as they remove definition from my body and makes me pretty shapeless. Clock strikes nine, or noon or six and, hungry or not, her I come to the table.

Recently I had lunch with a friend, at a Chinese restaurant in Charlotte, and he commented as I sat down with my third plate that he had never seen anyone eat as much as I do. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time! What is it about me and food?

Mom says that she tried to nurse me the first few weeks of my life but there was something wrong with her milk, something essential that was missing. In sum, I spent all those weeks hungry, crying for food, starving, really, she said. Maybe that’s it: deep down, somewhere below my consciousness I think I still am starving and so I eat.
Just knowing that piece of my psychological encoding does not curb my appetite, however--information is not transformation--and so I just keep eating. And there may be more to it, too, than just that.

Last year, near this time I was a part of a writing seminar in Washington. I have had occasion of late to reread the diary I kept while I was there. What surprised me was how much I wrote about food and eating. Just a sampling:

Monday, March 27:
Lunch was cream of broccoli soup, pasta salad, fruit. This morning I ate raisin bran, fruit and part of a muffin. I am trying to remember I do not have to eat everything every time.

Tuesday, March 28:
Did not sleep again last night. I think maybe I ate too much or something. There was a wonderful pinto bean soup, salad, roast beef, carrots, asparagus and yellow peppers, rice with a shitake mushroom sauce, raspberry something in a pastry (I did not eat that, but did have seconds on the beef and rice). I am trying to remember that it is Lent, that I do not have to eat everything, Fought the covers during the night, or maybe that was the mushrooms fighting.

Wednesday, March 29:
Tonight Michael Lindvall, Lauren Winner and and a couple of others of us sat together (among yet others) at dinner. I cannot hear what is being said and so I just smile and nod and eat. A lot. We had salmon tonight—it may have been red snapper—but it was quite good (and I do not really like fish), with sautéed vegetables (heavy on the peppers) and little, well, footballs of spaghetti. I have never seen that before, the servings pre-spooled and parsleyed and ready to pick up with tongs.

Thursday, March 30:
The food has been wonderful. I am eating Raisin Bran every morning (please, God!), and soup for every lunch (today with fruit and a part of a large sub sandwich). Tonight the Louisville Institute hosted us at a Mexican place a couple of blocks away.The restaurant was loud and the table long: I was unable to hear much of any conversation at all. Finally a fellow in the group, a pastoral counselor of all things, asked if I could hear. I told him no, but that I was used to it. I pick up words here and there. I realized something important—I think I eat as a coping mechanism in such circumstances: I cannot experience my sense of hearing, so I compensate by over-stimulating my sense of taste. Perhaps. I did eat A LOT. And am pretty miserable right now.


I fast, in part, because I know how much I eat. If in the deafness of my ears and the base of my psyche there are physiological reasons for my gluttony, in my heart there is a desire to dethrone food from its central place in my life. I try NOT to live by bread alone. My life revolves around eating (and I suspect I am not alone in that regard, whatever its sources in others’ lives) and I am trying to put it into a new orbit.

Nor is that the only thing Paul means in Philippians 3:18-19, when he says that there are many who live as "enemies of the cross of Christ." "Their god is the belly," he says —and if for some people like me the gluttony is obvious and culinary--going to the refrigerator for food to try to fill an old psychological or current spiritual emptiness (ala Buechner), for others their hunger is different. It may be for money or stuff, clothes or gadgets, lovers or victims. Sports, scandal, power, politics: our hungers are many and vast and in any case there can come with it enmity with the cross of Christ.

The cross means self-denial: and what a concept that is in our acquisitive culture, our go-ahead-and-get-it mind-set, our pay-ourselves- and feed-ourselves- and pamper-ourselves-first society. I speak not in judgment but in confession. Reading this text again this week I realized that many days, in many ways, I live as an enemy of the cross of Christ.

I don’t want to. Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, and with my stomach and with my checkbook, my calendar and energies. I want to desire nothing but Christ but day by day I desire so many other things. Food, not least.


Join in imitating me, Paul says. Imitate others of us in whom you have an example. Imitation, in this case, is less a matter of flattery than faithfulness. We learn to live our lives by trying to live as they do, at least for a season.

In I Corinthians Pauil says, I punish my body and enslave it, and the idea seems to be so that nothing material controls us. I am not so rigorous, but I am fasting, trying to look to the provision of God to nourish me more than to the bounty of the earth. I look to Jesus, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness that he might serve us faithfully. I want to imitate him, not in the extreme, but in some way that honors his sacrifice with a bit of my own.
One way to look at it is that my hunger began with my mother's inability to feed me. Or maybe we are all of us prewired in such a way that no one of this earth--not mother or father, spouse or child, not portfolio or team can satisfy us entirely. As John Baillie prayed,
"I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou has so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever satisfy me wholly. I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the comtemplation of a more perfect blessedness."
Or, as Augustine might have said, "O Lord, thou has made us for the Feast and our hearts, our souls, our stomachs are hungry till we shall feast there with Thee."