Today I pray for the people of Russia, passive victims of a sociopathic leader, taken into war without their voices and opinions being considered, lacking full knowledge or with the benefit of a factual and free press we pray.
Lord have mercy.
For a nation whose history is replete with czars, dictators and authoritarians, who have crushed dissent, stolen her wealth, compromised her people’s trust and repelled her Christian heritage unless it bow the knee to the idols.
Lord have mercy.
For mothers and grandmothers, whose young sons have been sent on a mission of bloodshed against kinsmen for no rational reason, who shell schools and synagogues and hospitals to assuage the egotism of a despot pursuing a delusional past.
Lord have mercy.
For people suffering hunger, deprivation and financial ruin for nothing better than stubborn lust for power and revenge.
Lord, have mercy.
For opposition leaders and true people of conscience, media, reporters, young people, whose future is being destroyed before their eyes. Protect them as they rise up against Nebuchadnezar, Nero, Stalin and Hitler, whose evil spirits still live among us.
Lord, have mercy.
May we be moved to refrain from hating Russia’s people as we loath her failed leadership. May we help her to return and rebuild her economy and standing when the wickedness has passed into dust and we have repented of our sins.
Lord, have mercy.
May they, and we, know again the refreshing waters of reconciliation and peace, the strength of mercy and forgiveness, the hope your grace provides, and may we learn the ways of war no more.
May they see the bleeding children, the desperate mothers, the suffering families, the terrified immigrants, the overwhelmed helpers, the ruin of infrastructure and homes and places of business and community. May they hear the cry of their courageous Ukrainian neighbors and rise up with us all to say, “Enough.”
When I first began to preach as a pastor it was in small churches in Central Texas. They were mostly blue collar and working folks, farmers, retired people who had moved out from the city, an assortment of people who end up in a church together by virtue of geography.
As I was just beginning my ministry, I desperately read books about how to preach and how to be an administrator and how to do all of this and that. But I particularly remember one preaching book that encouraged me to try to turn my main point into a positive affirmation. This became central in my life, even if I didn’t always do it well.
Having trained academically, I had a disposition toward thorough analysis and preface. It meant that I could spend a long time, and in those early sermons I surely did on those poor people, explaining why it was I was going to tell them what I was going to tell them. That usually meant 8 or 10 reasons why the world was going to hell and why they needed the one good thing I was going to slip in right before the final hymn. Only later did I learn to move more consistently to the affirmations of the gospel. people don’t need nearly as much analysis as we are inclined to give.
I find that to be generally true, though, these days. If you look at the Twitter feeds of sports teams, you would believe that every coach is an absolute disaster every player incompetent and no team having any idea what they were doing. We are heavy on criticism and analysis and a little short on blessing. It is a difficult exercise to begin to turn your negativity into affirmation. It goes against the grain of so much of our brokenness.
I preached plenty of sermons that were heavier on analysis and what needs to be fixed. But the best ones were always the ones that moved to the extraordinary good news of hope and transformation. The latter were what Jesus brought to the world, as has every other great religious leader who has ever lived and for that matter the best people in our lives. They have the capacity to take something that can be cast in the negative and turn it into an fresh affirmation. There is a place, an important one, for analysis and criticism. We need to evaluate and reconsider. But one of the great failings of our time is the predominance of the negative. Too much is centered around what’s wrong with the other person or those people or this or that bogeyman created by our collective fears.
Dr Samuel Proctor was a wonderful African American preacher, educator, theologian and scholar. He honored me by contributing a chapter to a book that I helped edit once. He once said of a contemporary, “Well, his “whereases” are pretty good but his “therefores” are a little weak.” It’s the therefores that finally make the difference.
You always remember when someone has forcefully taken familiar and empty concepts and words and recast what had seemed a dark and empty time into something surprisingly filled with hope. This is the genius of authentic leadership and authentic servanthood.
“Reframing” refers to taking something and recasting it so it can be seen afresh. In pastoral conversations, it can convey great power to respond to some statement of despair with, “Of course, another way to look at this…” and to see a light go on in the eyes. Blessing has great power. It is not denial, and it is not romanticized optimism. Blessing comes from Truth. It is an ultimate statement of “the way it is,” beyond our filters and negative predispositions.
Someone once said to me, “It can help to begin to use new words, to state things differently, when we are trying to change.” So, this might be a powerful spiritual practice. Take your dread, fear or hopeless assumption and begin to speak of it anew. Invite a larger perspective, one that allows for blessing, not curses, to be the final word for you.
Some people can look at the big picture and take it in. Others of us have to plant down on the earth and focus on digging the one hole that is ours to do. When you’re trying to get it together, simple is best. You can’t fix the entire universe, but you can fix a healthy breakfast. You can’t answer the question of suffering humanity, but you can lend a hand to one person hurting.
We live in time. It’s different for each of us. But what we do with the hand dealt us will finally determine how the story is written. I don’t even engage in the teacup tempests on social media anymore. I finally realized I can’t correct every misperception out there. And you can’t argue with a stump, unless that pleases you. Some of those online rants remind me of the Calvinist predestinarian fellow who fell down a flight of stairs and got up, dusted himself off and said, “Whew. Glad I got that over with!”
Nothing changes from the arguments. You have to get up and do something to get your life back. It can be a movement, or a cause, but a lot of folks are struggling on a more basic level. I had a wise spiritual director named Ron who told me that when he encourages people to try journaling he sets a goal of two sentences a day. He knew that they would overwhelm themselves with trying to write books (he was talking to me!) for the ages. “Just write couple of sentences.”
It is the little things not the big ones that really get you where you want to go. For stability and peace we look out for the things right by us to get us there. Set simple goals. First thing everyday, get up and do the same things. Make your bed. I read that that is one of the real indicators of depression, surprisingly, and just the simple act of doing that little thing is a discipline that begins to move us out of the funk and into control of living. Find something good to do as soon as you can. Once Basil Pennington was asked the secret of prayer. He said, “First you have to sit down.”
Maybe when you’re struggling you need to lower your own bar a little. One item on the list? Check it off. You’ll sleep better. Tomorrow we’ll try two.
Psalm 131 (New International Version. Copied from biblegateway.com)
A song of ascents. Of David.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
1 My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
I have come to know Hector Guadalupe through our daughter, first as a cause she believed in and now as part of our family. Hector has an extraordinary story, coming from the rough streets of Brooklyn and the world of gangs and drugs to incarceration in his twenties, to trying to create an adult life after that. It is an extraordinary story of his overcoming that world, but also a remarkable program he has created to help others coming from similar stories.
It is a familiar story, all too familiar. The “war on drugs” is, it turns out, like so many wars that begin with apparent good intentions. It ended up incarcerating millions of young people, predominantly young men, and disproportionately the poor and minorities. The laws tended to punish more severely those who did not have the wherewithal to afford and negotiate the system. When people go to prison, sadly, they lose everything. And when they return, it is all too common that they lose hope.
I have worked with many people who have gone to jail or prison through the years—both church members (in every church I have served, I might add), and members of the community. The stigma of felony records strips away voting rights, employability, and social connection. So how then do we propose that people lead a productive life that is good for society?
If you have ever walked through the criminal justice system yourself or with someone, you already know what a boulder it lays on the shoulders of a person who made a wrong choice. Hector’s story, though, is not a rehearsal of those obstacles. He created an amazing organization, Second U, to train the formerly incarcerated to return to productive citizenship and life. This weekend, CNN is running his story as a part of its CNN Heroes series. Hector trains young men and women to become, like he did, personal trainers, have their own businesses and reestablish themselves in normal life.
You may view the story here. I encourage you to watch it. It’s short, but inspiring.
Years ago, I went to the prison here in Alabama where inmates are held just before release to meet with and help a man who had been writing me from prison to ask my help in returning to life. He’d served a one-year sentence and would soon receive a bus ticket and a small sum of cash as he left. For the next months and years, I, and several of our church members, served as guides and encouragers as he put his life back together. There were ups, downs, and stumbles along the way, but he did it. At that time, I remember thinking, “If every church in Alabama helped an inmate return to life, what would that do?” I still think about that. A lot. The people in prison are, first, people, from families, made in the image of God.
Of late I have worked along with the organization Faith in Action Alabama to advocate for a less onerous process of helping former inmates restore their voting rights. This made it to the House as SB 118. Sen. Jabo Waggoner was helpful to us in this process. If you can’t get a job, can’t vote, can’t rebuild your life, and give hack after you’ve paid your debt, how will you stay away from darker options?
I hope you will watch Hector’s story and think about the 25,000 + human beings currently held in our state system designed for 12,000 and ask yourself, “What can we do better for us all”” Yes, there are people whose crimes merit being removed from society, but many of these can be returned to life. The government and the prison system cannot do it all. It takes the former prisoner with a will to restore themselves and make amends, a community willing to welcome them back and a faith community that keeps sounding its own message, “There is a second chance.”
If you are interested in knowing more about SecondU foundation or contributing, go to