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.


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.”

Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Continue reading Charlie and the Kardashians

Lessons From the Waiting Room

In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view.  A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever.  So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.

Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer.  Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing.  Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.

As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.

I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago.  And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again.  As we rejoice today, I share these words again.  Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now.  These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom.  You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day.  Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort.  You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse.  I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
  • Time is timeless in a hospital.  That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations.  Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world.  People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped.  God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.

    My wonderful sister ten years later