Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jeremiah Writ Small

It is Sunday afternoon, a few minutes past 12. I have just returned from the church where I went to confirm to my own mind, yet once again, that we did the right thing in canceling worship on account of the snow and ice that have turned our parking lot into a "slip-n-slide."

We did, but it is a strange thing, is it not, that phrase: "canceling worship." And of course we did not do that, could not, at least not in any ultimate sense. The worship of God that commenced at the dawn of creation, when "the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy," has continued, unbroken, ever since. And even today, in places here and there and everywhere, the Song continues, the praise and prayer.

It is a comforting thought--that when we are unable to do our little part, others fill in the gap. And truly there are times when, for a Sunday or a season or even a lifetime, we "pray for others," those who for one reason or the other cannot or do not.

I am reminded of that moment, each Sunday, when we do the Creed, Apostles' or Nicene. People sometimes ask me why we do that every Sunday, and why always at the end. I always say something like this: whether you liked the hymns or not, whether the sermon spoke to you or not, whether the choir moved you or you were able to pray with heart as well as voice, this is what we believe. This is who we are. We go out together with these affirmations on our lips, these same faith-statements by which people have ordered their lives and faced their deaths for lo, these many centuries.

People sometimes ask me, too, why I use the hymnal every time. "Surely, you know these words!" they say. Well, yes, I do...most of the time. But familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then distraction in the moment and there have been a few occasions when I have flubbed the words and led the congregation astray. A parable, that: preachers must be good stewards of the words they have been given so that their folk are not confused along the way. Accordingly, when I lead the Creeds, I always use a hymnal, to be sure I keep us together. When I am in the pew as a worshiper I never use the hymnal, sure that if I flub-up, there is someone behind me or beside me who can, by their good memory and faithfulness, rein me back in. Together, our profession of faith continues unimpeded.

Praise, too. Today, we have had to rely on others to continue the song. And they have. Next week we will pick-it-up again, God willing. We canceled our little piece of God's worship today, but Worship never ceases.

And still it was odd. Being at LSUMC on a day and at a time when we normally are there. I was reminded of Lamentations 1:1-- where Jeremiah looks over Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians and the deportment of the Jews, many of them to Babylon. He writes, "How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!"

For him, of course, the lament was greater, unsure as he was as to when the people would return, when there would be songs and celebration, whether he would be there to see and hear it. For us, and for me, the odd sadness of a quiet sanctuary is tempered by the hope and knowledge that we will gather again in just a matter of days.

My prayer is that next Sunday we ring our beautiful rafters with song. That we make glad the place of our worship, rejoice to be together once again and give the Morning Stars a run for their money.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I have been thinking…which is always a problematic affair…but I may be on to something here. When I went to the Y last week to do my walking, I saw a sign-up for men’s Church League basketball. I felt my heart do a between-the-legs dribble.

See, I used to play basketball. I am the first to admit I was not very good. I was slow, but I couldn’t jump either. Or shoot very well. I had no real knowledge of the game and almost no court awareness—my peripheral vision has always been suspect. I could not run the floor, had poor ball-handling skills and had trouble remembering which way to cut on set plays. I could not run backwards at all and I had no stamina. Maybe I could have made up for most or all of those deficiencies with hard work and enthusiasm, but laziness is my constant companion, has always dulled the edge of my little gung-ho. And still, I was on the school team for a short while—second- string B-team at MBA, a small, all-boys prep school in Nashville.

MBA was the “model” for Dead Poet’s Society (if any of you remember that movie). I attended there for one terrible, horrible, no good very bad year, and like Alexander (if any of you remember that book), there were many days I wanted to mail myself to Australia. Part of my misery was that some sort of athletic endeavor was required for all freshmen, and for me it came down to basketball or cross country. I chose the former, thinking the latter would be even more embarrassing.

I lasted a month, until the afternoon when the first-string varsity was running their offense against the second-string B-team defense (we were supposed to represent, however vaguely, the next opponent, and why in the world they put me on point in the one-three-one zone, I have no idea). A whistle started the play and next thing I know I had been sandwiched by a upperclassman’s screen and my knee cap had come to rest at the back of leg somewhere. A few weeks later I had the first of my seven knee surgeries.

After rehab and a change of schools I began attending a church that had a pretty good church league team. I had kind of gotten the bug, in spite of my failure and injury, and so I played church league ball for several years –even played on the graduate school team while I was in seminary. But after a surgery here and a surgery there I finally had to give it up in hopes of preserving what little orthopedic integrity I had left.

Injuries were not the only reason I put the ball in the rack and threw my sneaks to the back of the closet. With age I grew increasingly tired of fellows playing as if there were scouts for the Knicks in the stands (or the Yankees—you see this kind of behavior in softball, too, guys who seem to imagine they still have a shot at the bigs). They are WAY too wired considering the reality of the situation. A professor friend used to say that academic battles are so intense because there is so little at stake. Little league parents, too, some of them. I personally know of one such parent who had a heart attack and died after arguing, and all the way to the parking lot, a third strike call at his youngest son’s game.

Anyway, the other day at the Y, staring at the announcement for church-league sign-ups, I was thinking, remembering, wishing I could play a little more church league basketball, knowing, though, that there is really no place much, even on the bench, for a fifty-five year old who has had two separate replacements of the same knee. Then it hit me…

What we need is a league just FOR old guys and their prosthetics! We could call it Shelby JAMs (Men with Artificial Joints, JAMs being a backward acronym). Fifty and older, with no illusions that we are going to impress anyone, and least of all ourselves. I can see it now: old guys who don’t look so great in shorts, hobbling up and down the court only fast enough to get our heart rates up and break a sweat. We would take it easy each other, and laugh a lot. We would cheer each other on, even the guys on the other team, and pick each other up when we fall down on the “fast break,” and maybe keep score, you know, but no one really would much care about that part of it. We would just be thankful to be alive and breathing, to be able to still move at all.

It would not have to be a church league, but it could be, because big parts of it—we all are injured; we have no illusions about ourselves or each other; we are not trying to impress each other, just help each other; picking each other up when we fall down; cheering each other on—all of that sounds a lot like what the faith, and church, ought to be, and not just when we are playing ball.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pray for Haiti

And DO NOT give in to the temptation that seduced Pat Robertson. He is JUST LIKE the disciples in John 9, who stand there looking at the man born blind and begin discussing the causes of his circumstance. I see them nodding, pursing their lips, rubbing their beards as they ponder the existential dimensions of original or actual sin...

Jesus says only that the man's blindness is a chance for him to do the works of light. He kneels, begins making the balm of healing, the good earth and his holy spit, and spreads it on the man's eyes.

If we can blame the victims for what has happened to them we need not be so bothered. A pact with the devil? Hundreds of years ago? Neither these poor unfortunates nor their parents sinned in such a way, or even if they did God is wise enough to see past such foolishness. The question is not why...the imperative is now: let us do the works of light while there is light.

God does not send earthquakes; but God's people send aid, as God sent aid to us in Jesus. In that way God is glorified in even horrible moments such as this.

Pray. Do not blame.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Romans 8:28

I think most people reading and hearing this text are drawn to the first part... that God is working in all things for good, or God works good of all things--however one translates it there is comfort: the notion that nothing is coincidence for those who love God, that there is a plan, that nothing bad is ultimate, etc.

But tonight, in an otherwise unremarkable reading of that text, I heard the last part again: "...and are called according to HIS PURPOSES." Perhaps what struck me had to do with the recent and terribly unfortunate situation on the Hill, which is to say, at the University of Tennessee, Rocky Top, Go Big Orange!

I am a sidewalk alumnus, a devout and faithful follower, a cut-me-and-I-bleed-Orange sort of fan, and FOUR NUMBSKULL BASKETBALL PLAYERS were, on New Year's Day (which is the church calendar is the Holy Name of Jesus) pulled over for speeding. During the traffic stop two handguns were discovered, one with the serial number filed off, and also a baggie of weed in a backpack bearing the name of one of the players.

What WERE they thinking?

Anyway, one of them, a couple of days later, tweeted about the strength he was drawing from his strong faith, that "God will not put you in a situation without providing a way to deal with it." Something like that.

On one of the message boards I follow a guy posted, "God had NOTHING to do with putting you in this situation, dude. This is your doing." Indeed.

It is one thing to believe that those who are engaged in God's purposes find a deeper good even in difficult times. It is quite another to say that difficulties of our own making either interest God or obligate God to work good in and through it.

Should God do so, we can be thankful for such grace. But grace is a gift, not a given.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

January 6

January 6: Epiphany of the Lord. He who is born King of the Jews is also Savior of the World. Oh, that he would rend the heavens and come down! Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

But until Then, the revisions on my new piece for Upper Room Books continue. Today I am trying to help Jesus get Lazarus out of the tomb today... reminding me of the first line of my first real book when I posed this, and to my mind, GREAT question..."Did anyone ask Lazarus that day in Bethany whether he WANTED to be raised from the dead?"