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?”→
This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!
NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip. On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas. They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE
STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!
They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed. They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up. Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people are. Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such. Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.
So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?” And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”
I sympathize. I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here. It’s such a strange concept. Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.” The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Continue reading “In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon”→
We welcome a stellar series of speakers to lead us during the season of Lent at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church this year as we study “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Each week on Tuesday at noon, we will have a different guest teacher leading us in Bible study on the traditional deadly sins and talk to us about the power of the gospel to help us as we struggle against them in our lives. Last Wednesday evening, I led off with a presentation on gluttony (following a Baptist Wednesday night dinner and as part of the Ash Wednesday Communion!).
This week we continue with Dr. Ron DelBene. Ron is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, writer, and gifted speaker. He has been a major influence in my own spiritual life and I look forward to his words of wisdom about greed. A light meal follows after and the public is welcome to attend with us. Hope tto see y0u there!
“WELCOME TO THE MUSEUM OF PRIMITIVE RELIGIONS! Step this way and now look at the peculiar display on the subject of idolatry. We modern people cannot comprehend how superstitious were the ancients, such that the Hebrews prohibited carving little statues and bowing down to them…”
Since we religious folk have a 3,000 year old tradition and an ancient story crossing several cultures of the ancient world, I thought I would try to explain a word that seems so outdated and dull: idolatry. The prohibition of it is one of the Ten Commandments, and so it would seem rather quaint for our time. After all, we have a show called “American Idol” and we talk about “idolizing” someone. The ancients would have been terrified at such casual talk, but since we’re fairly casual about everything, maybe a museum lecture would be interesting.
In the ancient world, people represented their faith all sorts of ways–they worshiped trees, poles, statues, images, rocks, and projected divinities upon all of nature. Generally, they created these images with the understanding toat there might be a little sympathetic magic possible–to guarantee a good crop, success in life, or victory in war, by appeasing the god with offerings.
The Hebrews were forbidden this luxury. Only the mysterious God of Moses, a God who would not even reveal his name except as another mystery, was the true God. They could not control this God, manipulate the Lord for their own purposes or take God for granted as a national plaything or prop for the king. This God demaned justice, brought them to judgment when they failed and humbled kings when they became too haughty.
Idolatry, or the worship of false gods, is, essentially, confusing Creator and creation. When we elevate anything created into the place only rightly for God, it becomes idolatrous. Thus, Paul in Colossians, moves from concern about greed to idolatry (NRSV Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
It is idolatrous precisely because it rules over our life. Addictions are the idolatry of that which was created good–but not ultimate! Thus, food, sex, work, even family, patriotism, religion, can all be “idolatrous” if we do not live loosely attached to them–that is, understanding our right relationship to them. They and we will pass away. It is not worth ruining one’s spiritual life, for example, simply to feed the bottomless need for affirmation, fame, money or stuff. Food, sex, work, family, country and religion are all also good. But they are not ultimate.
It is equally idolatrous to want to be the most spiritual person in the world, to identify one’s own interpretations of God’s word and will with God’s word and will. This is the most dangerous of all. Idolatry is twofold–to lift up the earthly to the place of God and forget God. It is equally and also the desire to bring “god” down to earth, to create a manageable god who doesn’t ask too much of us, who is always just what we want God to be, our “buddy,” and never our judge or mystery. To understand God truly is to never forget that only God is God, and that our attempts to know God are never all that God is. To remember this is the beginning of wisdom.
The only way, then, to rightly live in this world is with contentment regarding what we have and humility with regards to our self-understanding, and for that to be enough. It is to be humble with regards to who we are, and to accept ourselves as God made us, and accept and care for others as they are, not imposing ourselves on them. To demand the impossible of oneself or others is also to stand at the border of idolatry. Truth about ourselves, our lives, and what is right is the aim of life. It is enough to see what God has made and simply say, “It is good. This is enough.”
Healthy self-regard means accurate, balanced, true self-understanding and to accept oneself. Period. It is the delusional need to project ourselves upon the world to deny our limits that can lead to wars, violence, self-hatred and hate of others. And it is precisely here that we understand why both politics and religion are so often destructive. We elevate our own views, demands and needs beyond criticism, discussion and conversation with God’s other creatures. Rather than listening to one another and figuring out the best way, we engage in the most expensive and nefarious games to avoid ever telling or admitting another’s truth. “Spin” is simply another word for deceit, even if it is oneself who is deceived. The motive for the deceit is the real culprit, and both religion and politicians should spend much more time and energy there, for the good of themselves and the rest of us. When one is more consumed with preserving ones own position, power or advantage than the good of our neighbor, an idol is nearly complete.
“Thanks for your patience, folks. I hope you found this interesting. That ends our museum lecture from these primitive people so long ago. Quaint, isn’t it? Well, back to our progressive, technologically superior world. Fortunately, we are more evolved. Our politics more humane. Someday, we’ll live together in peace and everyone will have what they need. Humankind never had it so good. There is no problem we cannot solve, is there? And if we can just get our people elected, the sky’s the limit…”