Of late, not only in my ministry work, but through the connections of social media, I have been highly conscious of the processions of sorrow that go on around us in the midst of life. In my work, we are walking near every kind of brokenness and sorrow in the world every week, then trying hard to stand up and proclaim hope on Sunday.
Brokenness comes in so many different forms, but it all shares one truth–suddenly we are in a room with no walls to keep predators out, no roof to shield us from torrential storms, no floor to stop us from going down. WIth that comes temptation to panic, that we might absolutely burst from the heaviness of it all. It is here that faith matters most if it matters at all.
This prayer is from my 2015 book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises. It was a prayer given originally as an invocation to a performance of the Requiem by John Rutter. If you are in that place, perhaps it would be of some encouragement today.
We came here tonight to wait and to hope
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 Read the rest of this entry
On Monday, I conducted a funeral service for a 43 year old man, Brian Booth, whom I’d known for 25 years. He had never spoken a single word to me, only responding with eye signals and laughs and sounds. Brian lived with cerebral palsy, profound in its limitations. His father shared a story about him.
Brian had a wonderful nurse for a number of years who was originally from Jamaica. Joan was one of those people that Brian would welcome with that beaming dimpled smile. Joan provided Brian with such incredible loving care and he was so appreciative. She would sit in the floor so she would be on his level, and talk to him about all sorts of things. He sincerely enjoyed hearing about other peoples’ trials and travails…so much so that he would laugh out loud when Joan would tell him about things that weren’t going just right. She always said that his laugh would make her forget anything that wasn’t going as expected. She would go home and share Brian’s ministry of laugh with her sister. If things were going off the tracks for her sister, Joan would simple tell her “you need to go see Brian”.
The differently abled and their families have so much to teach us. As a part of that service, I wrote and shared the following.
Yes, Brian was once a little boy.
But not forever. He became a man.
His wheel chair and the helpless limbs kept most of us
From knowing that—but he had a quick mind.
Rapid eyes followed all that passed by.
He did not miss any of life. He lived it
even if it wasn’t like yours and mine.
He lived his days knowing father and mother love
Far more than many who never have it at all;
Brothers and sisters made him laugh
and loved him, loved to be with him and whatever
Scrapes they might have had with each other they knew
What was said to Brian always stayed with Brian
No matter what.
It’s easy to see only limbs that don’t work
And stop seeing a brain that does, a heart that feels,
A young man’s understanding soul inside that laughed
At the name of Jesus. When did you last
Show your Lord such honor?
Reese’s peanut butter cups were just this side of heaven;
Barney on the other hand, never made the cut. Something
About a man in a purple dinosaur suit hit Brian wrong.
But of all the things of earth, the bad was a very short list.
How well have I done to avoid whining,
or being critical, complaining and unhappy?
And what reasons do I have for my hurried ingratitude?
Life is gift, but to know it while you live it? That’s pure grace.
He did. He caused so much love, beyond mere pity.
Yes and No with his eyes would do for ordinary things.
Smiles and laughter and groans and moans
For all the rest. And that is enough to live a life
Impart love to all around you and make it worthwhile
to have been here at all.
It’s the wake behind the boat that shows its power. Not admiration or envy
But waves and waves of love and the ache of its departure..
He was here. Jesus loved him. And he knew it.
That should be enough for any of us. The rest is for show.
Every year on this day, I republish this piece. It has been many years since I first posted it. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. Perhaps, also, in this moment when the Gulf coast is reeling from two batterings by hurricanes and humankind has been humbled before it that we might reconsider whether we can afford to be one anothers’ worst enemies much longer.]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church led in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, butlooking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address. I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.
So as we come toward the tenth anniversary of 9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together. I wonder what our remembering will be? It is still so recent that it might tempt us to re-engage the anger and harder emotions, the disbelief and outrage and fury at human evil.
Or we might just be enervated. Last year, I read Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man, which tells of various characters who were in the buildings that day and cannot seem to get past the tragedy that has suffocated their past and replaced it with a spiritual limbo. At a critical moment, the main character comes upon a performance artist in a harness who re-enacts a man falling from one of the buildings repeatedly, reminiscent of the terrifying photograph of the same name that so defined the horror of that day.
There is another place to go—and it is remembering. Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life. If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.
I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death. She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life. My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all. I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end. However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while. But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.” He was comforted by this.
We do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes. To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory. Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant. Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners. They’re God’s problem now. I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz. He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.” Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting. Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.
Ritual and worship are powerful, too. When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us. Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:
Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship. Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and discouragement. The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV). The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement. We allow ourselves into the presence of others. We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers. We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship. But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church. There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.
I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too. As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.
Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church. They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos. God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized. It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.
I will go to all the 9-11 gatherings I can attend to be with my fellow citizens, forget whether they are a Tea Party Republican or Yellow Dog Democrat, rich or poor, black, white or recent immigrant, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic.
It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are Christians that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history. We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember. And the remembering will help heal our souls.
I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say. The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece. Remember, so that we might be one day healed.
In a sermon, I once suggested that harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically. Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person. All or nothing thinking—and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit–makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life. This is not to say that there are no absolute truths–merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.
My friend D.r. Travis Collins is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.” Here are some possible penalties. Read the rest of this entry
If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in
Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.
Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.
Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations. Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.
Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.
It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions
about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.
Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.
In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we read of a defiled valley in Jerusalem where child sacrifice had been practiced through burning. King Josiah, in his reforms, declared it a defiled place. According to 2 Chronicles. 28:1-3, King Ahaz had offered incense there and offered his sons as a sacrifice. It was considered accursed, a desecrated place. So, too, King Manasseh, the wicked King who turned his back on the faith by permitting the horrific practices of other religions (although leading the nation to a prosperous economy) to be allowed, including child sacrifice. occultism, witchcraft and sorcery, channeling and wizardry. This included burning his sons as a sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 33:6).
The prophet Jeremiah thoroughly condemned this practice in Jeremiah 7:31-32 as godless and unholy. In his prophecy at the Potsherd Gate at the edge of this same Valley, Jeremiah stood and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, declaring that God would bring such evil upon them that whoever heard of it, his ears would tingle, and he linked it in part to sacrifice of innocent blood. It would become a desecrated place where only those with no burial place, like criminals and outcasts, would have their bodies placed. An unholy and terrifying place.
By Jesus’ day, the valley of Hinnom was still considered a cursed spot. So when Jesus described hell as a terrifying place, an “unquenchable fire,” (Mk. 9:43), the term for hell is Gehenna, which seems to link etymologically with “hinnom.” Some scholars have said that this refers to the desecrated valley, which became a trash dump in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.
It would have been a vivid metaphor in his hearer’s minds. Like most dumps, it smoldered continuously and was full of maggots (Mk. 9:48-“where the worm never dies and fire unquenched”). It was an unholy and evil place where only the most abandoned and forlorn souls ended their lives, bodies tossed shamefully onto the refuse of the city and decaying openly.
It is interesting enough that this was the image employed for the word “hell.” It is more intriguing to consider its beginnings as an accursed location. If you take a tour in Israel today, guides will tell this story and point out where it is thought to be.
That hell began with the sacrifice of a nation’s innocents, its children, while the powers that were sat by and tolerated it is astounding. It is horrifying to think of burning children on an altar. But then, I ponder—how do I live amid so much prosperity and yet so indifferent to the value of life—unborn, born, poor, neglected and otherwise?
How have we come to a place in which yet another school shooting numbs us? The same vapid paralysis will follow—the need for gun control and why it won’t matter, and ultimately, back to the same immobilized status quo. As my school teacher daughter sighed to me, “Dad, if we wouldn’t do a thing after a classroom of preschoolers were slaughtered in Newtown, we won’t do anything about this one either.”
And so we shrug, again. A disturbed 19 year old bought an assault rifle and did what it is designed to do—kill by the masses. And nothing will change. And some day, tour groups may stop, and the guide point to the map and say of us,
This is the valley from which the name Gehenna comes, and it first became accursed because of its association with child sacrifice. They helplessly allowed their children to be sacrificed and to live in fear of dying in their streets and at school. The economy was strong, but still, they were cursed for allowing their young to be consumed without lifting a finger. They were conquered and destroyed, but long before, they rotted from within. And nothing good ever grew there and no one would live there ever again.
There is still a glimmer of hope. The prophets warned Israel to repent and turn, while there was yet time. This is still a democracy, not a monarchy. There is still time. There is still a nation of citizens, a constitution, waiting for the will and united resolve to galvanize us to seek our better common life and the well-being of our young. We are not yet past the point of no return. But it is getting late.
Dr. Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, calls the parables of Jesus “open-ended stories” in his brilliant book, Jesus and the Victory of God. They are also stories of the coming Kingdom. In these teachings, he argues, Jesus does four things—he issues an invitation, a word of welcome, words of challenge, and words of decision and calling
Last week, during my Wednesday morning Bible study, I told about two kinds of thinking that we do about things that matter. One is convergent thinking—we move toward narrowin
g down to a solution, a focus, to eliminate the options and get to the core issue. It looks like this:
But there is also divergent thinking.It begins from a point, and drives us out into more and more possibilities. It “opens up” something else, like a brainstorm (even though a lot of brainstorm exercises are often more like a drizzle!). Instead of narrowing down, it widens our thoughts, deepens, and inspiration belongs here. It looks like this:
Both kinds of thinking are necessary for life. The parables brilliantly seem to do both—push us out into the kingdom, great thoughts, “opening up” as well as back to decision—“what must I do now that I have thought about this?” Over the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday communion tomorrow evening, we will look at and listen to Jesus speaking to us and teaching us—pushing our boundaries, but also calling us to new fixed points and hard decisions to be disciples. In the Tuesday luncheons and the Sunday worship all the way to Easter, Jesus will tell us, as my late friend John Claypool described them, “stories Jesus still tells us.” Come gather round together, as the family tells the stories of Jesus, and as he invites us to new places in our lives.
One of the delightful gifts to Vickie and me in recent years is a little collection of hymn texts from our own Dr. Milburn Price based on the parables of Jesus. The idea was inspired when he wrote a hymn text for my 15th anniversary at the church (ten years ago!). What resulted was a lovely little book called Lord, May Our Hearts Be Fertile Ground: Singing a Response to the Parables. We will be actually singing some of these hymns Dr. Price wrote in our morning worship and at the luncheons. Copies will be available if you want one, and they will help to connect us to the stories as our thinking comes back from “opening up” to “making commitment” each week. It should be a time of reflection and joy!
Wed Feb 14 Ash Wednesday “To Pray and Not Give Up” Luke 18:1-8
Sun Feb 18 “Sowing and Reaping” Matthew 13:1-8, 13-23
Sun Feb 25 “Kingdom Building” Mark 4:30-34
Sun Mar 4 “Seeing Jesus” Matthew 25:31-46
Sun Mar 11 “Inheriting Eternal Life” Luke 10:25-37
Sun Mar 18 “Who Was the Prodigal?” Luke 15:11-32
Sun Mar 25 Palm Sunday “Leaving the Ninety-Nine” Luke 15:1-7
Sun Apr 1 Easter “The Sign of Jonah” Matthew 12:38-40
I love the parables. I never tire of thinking about them. They challenge me, as stories always do, in a way that statistics and news reports never do. They open the world up, and open me up. There are about sixty parables of Jesus in all. They are still vital all these years later.