Wobbling On the High Wire

Holy Week has always  been special for me as a Christian and pastor.  Frankly, in the church year it always meant more to me than Christmas, though I adore Christmas for the deep cultural sense of family, baby Jesus and joy.

Holy Week is not the same tone. It is juxtaposed with an equally perilous spiritual history, Passover, when the Hebrew people were delivered by God from slavery and oppression, but not without great anxiety and fear. For Christians, it is a somber week that strips away, day after day, one human pretension of pride after another until all that is left is Jesus, alone in prayer while his closest companions slump wearily into sleep nearby. I don’t fault them—I identify with them. They are most like me. They are overwrought, afraid, wary, unsure of themselves.

The week ends in death and tragedy, the annihilation of every hope they had entertained. They were enveloped by a tidal wave of despair washing three years of growing excitement away with the words, “It is finished.” But it is ever so real to human experience. Not all of life, of course, but there are moments when everything is dashed to pieces and you wobble on the high wire. Most Christian kitschy art and movies rush to the resurrection, much like our tendency at a funeral to skip the empty space in our souls and offer glib denial and quick tours of heaven. There is little real drama, because you already know everyone will dance around and be excited shortly.

So that is my special week. But it is personal. Fifty years ago, liturgically (it was a week later than this year), I sat in the choir loft on Sunday night at Crestview Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio during a communion service. That evening we observed it in complete silence, an odd prelude to an important reality for me in years to come, and in that stillness, I had an experience of such forceful clarity that  altered my life. I went before the church the next Sunday to announce that I believed God had called me into ministry.

Every year, when I walk this week with Jesus, I revisit that strange moment. I have agonized through the years to keep peeling it back to understand it better. I have, like the disciples, slumbered too much and been thickheaded about what is going on at important moments. You cannot do this work without a sense of genuine calling. And you cannot do this work faithfully without a real sense of self-questioning along the way. It is a window through which I have looked out at everything all these years. 

Now, in retirement for a month, I find myself there again, asking, “What is my calling now?” It feels as new and uncertain as age sixteen again, a reminder to me that life is never “set.” There is a simple call for us who are Christians, “Follow me,” and a vast web of reflection that asks, “What does that mean? For me? For now? For this time?” And I am grateful that a mysterious Benevolence seems to dwell among us, not seeming to give up on us, and offering something extraordinary around the next corner, even when it is utterly unmarked and full of uncertainty.

The King of Dynamite

A young boy was born in Sweden in 1833, the son of an engineer, fourth of eight children.  The boy was sickly as a child and learned the fundamentals of his father’s trade.  He had intellectual curiosity and, like many other little boys, an intense interest in blowing things up.  But this boy was different.  Alfred Nobel continued to study explosives and military equipment, which his father’s factory manufactured during the Crimean War.  When the war ended and they tried to switch to peaceful purposes, they went bankrupt.

Alfred began experimenting with explosives and managed to find a way to explode a volatile but until then unusable substance called nitroglycerin.  He created the detonator that became the blasting cap, the beginning of modern explosives.  It was a dangerous profession, and in 1864, his entire factory blew up from an accident, killing his younger brother and several others.

In 1867, Nobel invented dynamite, which was much safer and easier to handle, and Nobel became a rich man.  Many people of his day saw him as a war-monger and a merchant of destruction.  Nobel himself hoped humanity would one day see the futility of such destructive powers and become peaceful.

Nobel never married and when he died in 1895, he left a vast fortune.  At the opening of his will there was a great shock to family and friends.  He left the bulk of his fortune to establish what have become known as the Nobel Prizes, the most highly regarded of international awards in the sciences and humanities, and one most highly prized, the Nobel Peace prize, given to that person who most advances the cause of world peace.

What would cause a man whose own life was spent in the pursuit of wealth and the development of destructive forces to make his legacy be that of such noble ends?

There has been speculation about this, but the most likely may be traced to a bizarre incident in 1888.  That year, his brother Ludwig died in France.  French newspapers, mistaking him for Alfred, printed pre-prepared obituaries about his life, announcing that “the merchant of death is dead” in a big headline.  What he may have read there could have caused dismay.  The world saw a millionaire who was “the dynamite king” and a trafficker in blood and war for profit. 

It may have been lost on his detractors that Nobel himself invented other things and even in his explosive work hoped it would be turned to good ends—construction, for example.  Because of dynamite, we can now literally and quite easily fulfill Jesus’ statement:  “If you have faith, you can move mountains.”  But what the world seemed to see of his life was something more sinister.

Perhaps, after that rare gift of the opportunity to see oneself from the vantage point of death, Nobel determined to leave something greater as his legacy, one that would bring the world better things.

But as we barely raised the flag back to its place, we had to lower it once more. Another crazy and irrational outburst of weaponry in an ordinary grocery store. People were waiting to get vaccines and buy laundry detergent. A heroic policeman, father of seven, rushed in to his death to try to stop the killer. Now his children will grow up without a father. We’ll send money for the kids, call our Congress people, and that’ll be the end of it.

Spare me the talking points. I’m too weary to listen to the tired arguments again, only to disappear with the next news cycle. We need something utterly unexpected, a bequest for peace from one of the harbingers of death, perhaps, to cry, “Enough. Let’s spend every breath and dollar trying to make peace with each other. We’ve had enough death, enough anger, enough rage. Enough. My fortune to someone who can find a solution.” Now THAT would be news, and not too soon. It will have to start in a troubled conscience somewhere, maybe tonight….

Flat Tire On Memory Lane CD

The first batch of CDs are here. Depending on your generation, you either prefer vinyl (really old or really young!), streaming or CDs. A lot of my fans still like to hold something in their hands- a book or a compact disc. So it’s here. I am really proud of this project. It ended up taking longer than I first thought, but these songs, both writing and recording, are the result of a long period of tending and reflection. My friend Mark Weldon joins me on this project and contributed four of the originals. The rest, except for “I’ll Fly Away,” are mine.

You can order a CD here by clicking the words Buy Compact Disc

Streaming is $10 and CDs are $15 which includes shipping and handling!


Location, real estate people tell us, is everything. To be DIS-located is, then, a threat.  When things come apart, our energies naturally go toward “relocating” or returning to where we were as soon as possible. A year ago, when the pandemic began, most of us didn’t really know how long it would last or how bad it would be. There is no need to rehearse the vast array of dislocation that has happened.

But what does it mean to “return?” While we are all eager to get back to normal, whatever that is, we have seen things about our common life and each other that we cannot “unsee.” There are more than half a million fellow Americans who died as the world struggled to find a solution. If we rejoice we must somehow also grieve together.

My wife and I were fortunate to get our first shot on Wednesday and we will go back in three weeks to get the 2nd. By the time we are able to be with our youngest grandchild again, we will have missed two of her birthdays except for online presence which thankfully has been a daily sitcom. Social media brought us destructive darkness, but also a lifeline of connection. So it is with all human powers. Everywhere, people found their ways to keep on.

I often think about the people who clean our water, repair our appliances, deliver our groceries to the stores, truck drivers and warehouses and loading docks and people who coordinate all of that movement. Highways are built by people we never meet. It is paid for by the rest of us and regulated by are law enforcement people. We have peered into our systems this year and learned that they are complex and vulnerable. Law enforcement, government and neighborhood have been tested to the limit. And nothing more than our vast system of healthcare and its heroic workers.

We have been through a year in which all of the ways that hold us safely together and on which we depend have come near to unraveling. And when things unravel, both the best and the worst that is in humans comes into view. We have been inspired, and we have been dismayed.

After forty-one years of fulltime ministry, my wife and I retired from fulltime professional ministry at the end of February. I include us both because ministry in a local church is “all hands on deck, all the time. So now I mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic with the beginning of a new chapter in my own life. I began my ministry at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church 27 1/2 years ago to a standing ovation in a crowded church on a July afternoon. I concluded my ministry of 41 years with a socially distanced room that was mostly empty, but still the most people I had spoken to other than funerals for a year. Perhaps it was fitting that it should end this way.

But like all that is best in the church, they found ways to celebrate a little at a time. They gave us a splendid and creative month of farewell. The leaders each week did things to say thank you and to send us out in a spirit of appreciation. We have also moved and are just about finished settling into our new place.  For three weeks we have been emptying out, downsizing, giving away, and reorganizing.

It is a fitting metaphor for this moment. During the past year, I preached for many months only to a camera and one cameraman while we sought to hold our community of faith together safely. The staff worked harder than it ever has, like every business, family, school and organization, to keep going.

I recognized, of course, that the world wasn’t simply going “back to normal.” The phrase “new normal” is a bit worn so I’ll pop in one from the world of family therapists: “neo-stasis.” Homeostasis is the term from the sciences about the biological balance of an organism.  When you live in a dysfunctional family, therapists say, sometimes it requires anxiety and disruption to move to a healthier place.

The old “normal” was not completely healthy anyway. No “used to be” ever was. Families, like cultures, are always struggling with their history, debts and obligations to one another. So are nations. We have a chance to renegotiate who we are going to be with one another and figure it out. As a Christian I would simply say that this renegotiation is going to involve proper grieving. And a lot of hard work toward real forgiveness and reconciliation. Some spectacular innovation has been forced upon us, and we will learn from it.

My calling moves to a new place. There are books to write, songs to sing, family tending to do. So, among other things, I am turning to a time of reflection and writing, and in this space over coming weeks and hopefully years, I will take some regular time to think back on a life given to ministry and spiritual truth. I hope I can live up to that. And my hope is that in looking back I might also do a little looking ahead in ways that help. As we return, oddly, to something new.

I’ll end today with a song from my last album, an old traditional piece, called “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”