LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
In the Garden
“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
and He tells me I am His own.
and the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.” (C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden”)
(this is a chapter I wrote in a book edited by Dr. Paul Basden called Encountering God in the Prayers of Others. used by permission.) For more information click here
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, or or a meal with friends and a good book. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time.
After a while, I started singing an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
My father’s job took us farther and farther away until, in the sixth grade, we lived in Wisconsin. My grandfather by that time had developed emphysema and died when I was eleven years old. As far as I knew, I never cried about it again and rarely spoke about it.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and so happy. I was having trouble remembering the words for some reason and kept singing,
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
mmmmm mmmmm mmmm
mmmmm mmmmm mmmm
For whatever reason, I couldn’t remember those two lines. I began to feel a terrible tide on the other side of a carefully constructed dam I had built over the years. I was afraid as I sang that I losing control.
It was time for church, so I headed to the chapel. I walked over to our worship leader and asked, “What are those last two lines in the first verse?” She replied, “The voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.”
The dam burst, and I began to weep. Twenty five years of unspoken grief tumbled .
I sat back down and my eye instinctively went to the light, shining through a stained glass window. On the window was an image of King David, playing the harp. It was the strangest sense that “the voice I heard” falling on my ear was being disclosed by God.
The great-granddaughter of Charles Austin Miles said once that the hymn “was written on a cold, dreary day in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden. I guess you could say it is a tribute to my great-grandfather’s faith that he believed it existed, at least in his heart.”
Miles wrote the story to reflect the story of Mary Magdalene, first witness of the resurrection. If it is loathed and despised by some musicians and theologians for its “me focus,” it remains is one of the most loved hymns of all time.
There is a legitimate solitariness of soul that is part of every spiritual journey. We may learn prayer in community, but we must also learn to pray alone. It may bring us to places of utter loneliness. In those places we find that we are not alone at all, but that God is present to us, surprisingly, even in a resurrection appearance to an unlikely first witness, Mary, the first Christian, Saint of the Broken Heart, as far as I’m concerned. Garden or Basement, “the joy we share when we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
Prayer for a Requiem
I am grateful that I have served with three wonderful worship leaders over the twenty-seven years at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church before I retired–Dr. Milburn Price, Dr. Terre Johnson, and Rev. Marty Watts. Thanks to being in a church with these outstanding musicians, we were exposed to some of the great music of the Christian church. Terre Johnson asked me to compose a closing prayer following a presentation of the Requiem by John Rutter, a beautiful and somber remembrance of human sorrow. Before we can hope again, we must grieve honestly to reckon our loss, and the Rutter Requiem is one of the most beautiful I have heard.
As it is Good Friday, it seems appropriate to revisit this prayer. If you object to written prayers, I would simply say the act of writing in quiet is every bit as spontaneous and open to God as free-form prayers, which can become incredibly predictable over time. For me personally, Good Friday is a hard day. And so this prayer feels right for a Tennebrae service, a candlelight series of readings on Good Friday evening. As readings from the gospels are given, candles are extinguished one by one until we end in darkness and leave in reflection on the power of death and our need for the light.
I published this prayer as part of a book several years ago entitled Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises.. I hope, whether you share my faith or not, that this prayer might speak to you today.
We came here tonight to wait and to hope
That tombs and sorrow and death and loss
Are only prelude
To seek the Living shepherd,
Beyond our doubts, beyond our fears,
From death into life.
We wait faithfully
You might meet us in our gardens of sorrow as you met Mary,
We wait for unexpected visions in the midst of our tears.
And for you to come to us
As you came to them behind the locked doors of fear
To wait tonight is enough
For tomorrow we will walk to the tomb again
And discover the promise fulfilled yet once more
Tonight it is enough to shed out tears and grieve
For joy comes in the morning
And there is a purpose to the night that cannot
And should not be passed by
For when the morning comes
Its light is ever more brilliant
And our joy everlasting.
We wait as the people of faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Mother and Son
Jaroslav Pelikan’s marvelous book Jesus Through the Centuries takes a sojourn through the vast and complex history of the interpretations of Jesus. Among the chapters is one entitled, “Christ Crucified,” in which he notes the disproportionate focus on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the gospel accounts. By even the most “generous” reading, he notes, we have at most information about less than a hundred days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, but of the last few days we have an hour by hour account.
Says Pelikan, “What was said of the thane of Cawdor in MacBeth was true pre-eminently of Jesus: ‘Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving of it.’” It is clear that the gospel writers intend for us to focus our attention here, to the foot of the cross and the edge of the empty tomb. These are the founding images of the Christian faith, called the “Passion” of Jesus Christ.
Surprisingly little is said of the actual method of crucifixion. The most agonizing details of the death itself have been multiplied by morbid preaching, but the gospels pass over those details in near silence. They do not seem to be interested particularly in the pounding of the nails or biology of asphyxiation. The fact of his crucifixion seems enough.
We do, however, have seven short sayings and attributed to Jesus as he died on the cross. They have fascinated preachers through the centuries. Why, of all things he might have said, did he say these in his final hours? And if there was more, why were these the sayings remembered by the gospel writers? We will not know the answers to those questions on this side of heaven, but we can still listen in fascination.
After all, who can resist overhearing the last words of any dying person? Every child at a bedside strains to hear a word of love, reconciliation, summing up, or release from a dying parent. These words say some significant things to us if we have ears to hear them. They seem random at first, but have resonated in the Christian tradition:
John 19:26-27-“Son, behold your mother…”
John 19:28-29-“I thirst”
Luke 23:32-38-“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Mt. 27:45-54-“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
Luke 23:39-43-“Today, You Shall Be with Me in Paradise”
Luke 23:44-46-“Into Thy Hands I commit my Spirit”
John 19:28-30-“It is Finished!”
While many of the words are about lofty things—surrender to God, eternal hope, abandonment, forgiveness, there are two that are very poignant for their simple earthiness and pathos. “I thirst” is a cry of a suffering human being. And “Son, behold thy mother,” was Jesus speaking to John, we assume (the disciple Jesus loved, John humbly refers to himself). He was asking him to care for his mother. As a last act on his earthly life, he turned to maternal love and the anxiety of leaving her. We assume Joseph perhaps has already died and she is now losing a son. John says that from that day on, the disciple took her into his own home.
Now I’ve been thinking about that again as the pain of George Floyd’s death has returned to us through a trial. And beyond the infamous words of not being able to breathe, it was the cry for his mother that undoes me. For all the anger, pain and sorrow of what happened last year, at the core of every bit of human brokenness is love and sorrow. In the anguish of an ordinary moment on a city street gone bad, something in me feels sadness above all else. All the pain in the world ends up as the separations from one another—life lost, families broken, neighbor love replaced by anger and distrust, and all that wells up.
No, “Son, behold thy mother” is not housekeeping. It is every bit as deep and profound as all the theologically lofty words that followed. Perhaps in this moment, too, it is this simple recognition of one another’s profound and vulnerable humanity, a child and mother, that has been lost in this virtual world of ours, only revealed in those moments of terrible unjust suffering. Don’t hurry past it. Take it in. It’s the only way back.
What Can We Say?
I finally ventured out yesterday to buy some new tennis shoes. Wearing a mask, I went to a local store and followed the rules. I was waited on by a very sweet and helpful young woman, also in a mask. She happened to be African American. As I was trying on shoes, I asked, out of habit, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine, how are you?” A typical exchange of pleasantries.
Something moved me inside to say, “Actually, my heart is broken. That horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has left me heartsick.” And like that, our conversation changed. She opened up, not angry, but surprised that a masked stranger buying tennis shoes would venture the subject, I suppose, but she spoke more frankly that she shared my sadness and a trace of exhaustion. We have to hope and pray things can get better, she said.
It didn’t last long, but it reminded me that we can live on the surfaces and not know anything about what’s underneath with each other. Something has blown open this week in the soul of our country. It is not new. It’s painful, a wound that gets better for a time but never fully heals.
Racism is not only cruel; it is irrational and ultimately brings death and destruction. It is far past time to call it out wherever it is and require our corporate life to reflect who we hope to be at our best—fair for everyone in our society, just in treatment of one another,
and fierce to speak out for our neighbor, not just ourselves.
In 1996 Alabama experienced a string of church burnings. Our church made a gift to one of the churches and I drove down to meet with one of the church leaders. Our missions committee donated to them to help rebuild. I wrote these words then, twenty-four years ago. I wish they were not still relevant now. I wish I could say, “That was then, this is now.” I wrote this after standing among the ruins of that church in 1996:
“Racism” is a loaded word. When it is spoken, defenses are erected almost immediately. “Oh, no, some of my best friends are…” Some definitions are so sweeping that they cause despair. Often, African Americans and Anglo-Americans don’t even mean the same thing by the word. Continue reading What Can We Say?